Constellations of Identity: A Conversation with J. Michael Martinez


The poetry collection Museum of the Americas, published last month by Penguin, is the third book by J. Michael Martinez. It was selected for the National Poetry Series by Cornelius Eady, and was on the longlist for this year’s National Book Award for Poetry. The book tackles a wide range of topics: from casta paintings and postcards depicting dead Mexicans to the journey of Santa Anna’s wooden leg, a couple exhibited in P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, and Martinez’s own family history.

The book’s larger cultural issues will get a lot of attention, and they should, as they deepen the conversation, but what has stayed with me most are the very personal poems in this book, about Martinez and his father and his grandmother, which serve as great tributes to their lives. Having lost my grandmother last year, who was a completely different woman from Martinez’s grandmother, he managed to capture that feeling of loss and explore grief in truly resonant ways.

We spoke recently about the idea of the museum, quitting his PhD program, and writing this book in less than a month.


The Rumpus: Is there a start you can point to for this book or what became this book?

J. Michael Martinez: I was working on a PhD at the time and I was looking at different contemporary Latinx poets and their work. I ended up going down into the archives and pursuing these items that were historically erased or not looked over or not looked at in terms of how they affect poetics. They began to form a constellation around certain ideas. I was working on a critical dissertation for an English PhD and I began to develop those ideas more theoretically. At some point I realized that the degree wasn’t really what I wanted to do. I had all these items that I’d been looking at for years and I sat down and in a short period of time wrote a ton of poetry which I then fashioned into what became this book.

Rumpus: Before we go any further, can you explain what casta paintings are. I had heard of them and seen them, but knew very little about them and since reading your book, spent a lot of time going down this Internet rabbit hole.

Martinez: [Laughs] Excellent. Casta paintings are well represented by the cover of the book. I was glad that Penguin was able to make that a cover. The casta paintings are fundamentally portraits of one person’s biological predecessors. They end up mapping out in individual panels on one canvas their father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, great-grandfather, great-grandmother—and depicting the races of their ancestors in order to “prove” and justify that individual’s whiteness. That was used to designate land, taxes, and rights in the New World. Those who were born in New Spain would do that in order to return to Spain and get equivalent rights as someone who was born in Spain. These representations going even further back are related to courtly portraits and castas are related to the sovereign presence of the king.

Rumpus: So much of the book is related to and responding to the physical, in particular the different forms of art—casta paintings, postcards, the rosary. Did those aspects come from what you were writing about in your dissertation?

Martinez: For the writers I was looking at [for my dissertation] the corporeal was so vital to how they were conceiving the poetry of identity and how they were representing bodies. The corporeal for these writers are all present. Looking back at the Treaty of Guadalupe and the casta paintings and seeing how the body had been aesthetically constructed, there are comparable moments in those constellation of potential identities. To me the casta paintings act as a fundamental nexus since its dealing with heredity while also speaking of the construction of the museum and how identities are being referenced in relationship to the casta. The castas used exotic foods and clothes and they were used to advertise new world products in addition to representing identities. And so identity is getting caught up in representations of potential markets in the new world vis a vis the casta identities.

Rumpus: I was reminded about when genealogy and questions of heredity became important in the US, it was about whiteness and identity.

Martinez: When we think about the casta paintings in the eighteenth century they correspond and extend into the rise of eugenics. Casta being caste. They’re a very interesting nexus point between the aesthetic and epistemological and identity politics. That is, in how aesthetic representation winds up speaking to and aiding certain ideological representations of identities and bodies.

Rumpus: That question of the ways that aesthetics affects ideology is something we’ve been thinking about and talking about much more recently. And I feel like in some ways this book isn’t timely at all, but it also is very much a book about this moment.

Martinez: Absolutely. In some ways I wanted to write the book to give historical context. Having experienced a lot of racism—people yelling at me from cars to go back to Mexico, people calling me a wetback, confrontations on the street from people who are scared that there’s a latino in their neighborhood—in my mind reading and researching Latino lit and the rise of Latino lit you end up seeing how Latinidad has been represented historically. When you get further into the archives, I saw these things that are historical but I also understood that this moment is not new. There have been various moments in history where there is a drive on the federal level to persecute Latinos, Latinas, Latinx—however you want to phrase it. Whether it’s the wetback laws of the early twentieth century, the expulsion of Latinas in the nineteenth century, for me the “crisis” at the border and the idea of a wall are antiquated notions that have surged again to the present. For me part of the book was to give historical context to a lot of the bullshit that’s happening now. If it seems surprising, it’s still historically accurate. It’s not different from what has been historically occurring.

Rumpus: One way you do this is to write about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. I knew that this is the treaty that ended the Mexican-American War, but I’d never read the text and I was very shocked to read your poems.

Martinez: It’s funny because when I read the treaty I went, whoa. What is happening?

Rumpus: As you said before, this isn’t new, but it is odd to see some of these ideas about identity and citizenship literally in the text. It was surprising but not shocking? I don’t even know how to describe it.

Martinez: Richard Griswold Del Castillo, in his book The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo: A Legacy of Conflict, succinctly states,

In the first half century after ratification of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, hundreds of state, territorial, and federal legal bodies produced a complex tapestry of conflicting opinions and decisions.

This tapestry of opinions and decisions were, more often than not, rooted in the racialization of the unmoored. As Dr. Martha Menchaca states, in her book Recovering History, Constructing Race,

This move had a severe impact on Mexicans because the state legislators chose not to give most people of color the legal rights enjoyed by White citizens.

If one was of “color,” one was left unmoored; if one was “white,” one might enjoy legal rights.

When I look at the news, today, where Trump is thinking of changing how citizenship occurs, when thinking about the migrant caravan moving up through Mexico: we are still seeing nineteenth-century rhetoric and racism being used to describe and disparage those peoples. The treaty echoes through time, as time, still affecting identities.

Rumpus: I was reminded of Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, which is a book of poetry about treaty language and identity and what that means.

Martinez: That book is gorgeous.

Rumpus: That book and yours both point out how the language of diplomacy and mapmaking and citizenship has its own aesthetics, but its tied to a historical moment as much as every other kind of speech.

Martinez: For me the treaty ended up being this site of language that is terrible and beautiful, but also it left identity evacuated and postponed, in that there’s such a rich potential and possibility for a more liberating democratic sense of openness towards identities. It’s that kind of latent potential for democracy and revolution inside of that evacuation that I find really interesting and hopefully was able to articulate in the poetry.

I read a lot of theory and a lot of philosophy, more than I do even poetry, and I primarily comprehend the world through a poetic vision. Metaphor, for me, is a fundamental key in the epistemological drive in poetry. When I read the Treaty I see the language as opening up possibility even as it’s being literally used to deny civil liberties to people at that time.

Rumpus: As you were speaking, I was reminded of the lines:

The Treaty of Guadalupe: a poetic where the historical subject traverses
through vanishing into the naked color identical in time to its embodied “self.”

Martinez: Yes and right there, “naked color” that’s from Maurice Merleau-Ponty which is why it’s in italics. That idea of the naked color that Merleau-Ponty articulates captures that fluidity, both presence and absence. Merleau-Ponty uses that phrase, “naked color,” to point to the bridge between the conceptual and the material, the ground out of which both emerge. What happens when the thing prepares to enter into absence and presence, what’s prior to presence in the absence. It’s between and before absence and presence I think that the treaty opens itself into. Just prior to that [in the poem] I tried to bring up the image of a wormhole not as a tunnel but how it’s beautifully represented in the movie Interstellar as a mirrored sphere. It’s an analogy to what I’m taking as identity. Yes it’s a tunnel, but it’s a sphere in three dimensions and when you enter it, you enter into a higher dimension, a perceived absence whose content is imperceptible to those who experience the world outside [in three dimensions]. I have no idea if that makes any sense. [Laughs]

Rumpus: You have one poem, “Skin Maps,” which is about a constellation of issues, but it’s a very personal poem about you and your father.

Martinez: The first part of that poem deals with my father. I wrote that nearly fifteen years ago as a prose poem dealing with his time in Vietnam. He was exposed to Agent Orange and when he came back from Vietnam he married my mother and over the course of a handful of years the pigment of his skin began to go white. His skin is blotchy with parts where the skin became literally white. A lot of the skin conditions I have and that my brothers have that we’ve inherited come directly from Agent Orange. It’s something that I’ve never really understood. I’ve always had very sensitive skin. It’s something that I don’t really talk about because it’s really close to me. I don’t go into too much detail in the book about what my skin is like now, it’s something I’ve had to deal with forever and I never understood why.

Around 2010 I came upon articles pointing to the VA owning up to what occurred with Agent Orange and the people who were exposed to it and how these various conditions extend from that. “Skin Maps” goes into these concrete physical issues of my family’s skin. When I was born I couldn’t really be taken into the sun as I was very sensitive to light and heat. People in my family asked, Whose honky baby is that? This confusion of skin color extends to racial identity. People will never mistake me for being white however I have innumerable times met up with other Latinx and have been mistaken as not being part of Latinidad. That immediate way of identifying through a visual sense through seeing and how problematic that is—I wanted to enter into these spaces where the politics of identity becomes so much more problematic. How my father’s exposure to Agent Orange is part of a national narrative dealing with imperialism and Vietnam, how soldiers of a certain class and certain race were exposed to Agent Orange while they were serving their country. How skin is always caught up in national pursuits by the federal government. There are these webs of connections that tie them together.

Rumpus: And of course the idea that your identity becomes ambiguous because of his going to Vietnam and fighting for the country—

Martinez: It opens up a whole can of worms which deserves its own book. But in my mind that connected directly to these other constellations about how the body is caught up in so many different kinds of politics as it’s being aesthetically understood.

Rumpus: Calling the book Museum of the Americas is not a small title.

Martinez: [Laughs] Yeah it definitely carries a lot of weight with it and I was hoping it would do that. Also hoping that it wasn’t too cliche.

Rumpus: That idea of a museum is an interesting way to think about this constellation of ideas and events that you’re dealing with, trying to connect them but also very self aware that this is not the entire story.

Martinez: There’s only so much that can fit into any book. I did a lot of research into the origin of museums. The castas are caught up in the invention of the contemporary museum. Museums are so interesting in terms of their development into what we now consider to be institutions of democracy. That narrative and thinking of the American Museum by Barnum, it’s a web. I think this is another reason why people want simple answers for identity politics—because it’s so networked into the different structures that organize our government, our national history, and our personal identities. It’s not simple. Race isn’t simple. History isn’t simple. To do that requires a certain type of arrogance and elision of the historical.

Rumpus: I wanted to spend some time talking about the last two poems, which are about your grandmother. They’re not divorced from all these other concerns, but they’re even more personal than “Skin Maps”. I lost my grandmother last year.

Martinez: I’m sorry.

Rumpus: Thanks. She was a very different woman from your grandmother but after reading “The Wake of Maria de Jesus Martinez,” I put the book down and I just remembering thinking, yes.

Martinez: Thanks, man. I’m really glad to hear that.

My grandmother was a spiritualista. She talked to a spirit. She wasn’t a full curandera, but there’s been this spirituality in my family. My grandmother on my mother’s side, who this is about, raised my nine aunts and uncles on her own. I spent so much of my life in the house where my very large family grew up. When she passed away my grandmother had been living with my mom and my dad and suffering from dementia and my mom had taken care of her the last couple years of her life. So when I talk of my mother it was really about watching someone that she loved and cared for slowly become distant and detached and loving them through that. I’m very close with my mother and close with my family and when she passed away, they asked me to do the eulogy. I didn’t know what to say, to speak to the matriarch of my family who was so essential and so close to me and to so many people. What I did write worked in the moment, but I did feel that it was as I write in the poem that they were “plastic-pink / comfort flowers.” It was easy and I wasn’t being honest and I couldn’t access that. I felt that I had failed her in the eulogy.

Whether or not that’s actually true, who knows, but I wrote the poem very quickly over the course of a couple days. The first draft came in about an hour and it really wrote itself. It was my attempt to be authentic to such a pivotal member of my family, to someone I really loved and cared about, who spoke truth to power and through a cogent spirituality—through a kind of spirit that may not be comprehensible or apprehendable to a lot of people, but in our family was necessary. It was one way that I could grieve for my grandmother since I had to stand in front of my entire family at her wake and in some way perform. I don’t show emotion as openly as I could and so grieving for me occurs in the language where I can find my authenticity. Where I can have my integrity. Hopefully that worked.

Rumpus: You structure the poem in an interesting way. You have stanzas on each page and the next page opens by restating or rephrasing the final line or lines of the previous page.

Martinez: I was wondering how to organize these different pieces of the poems together. I played with crown sonnets; I played with various types of repetitions and reiterations. I wanted to make a web, a kind of constellation. As I was editing, being able to use the last line as the first line of the next section allowed me to maneuver really quickly to different subjects, different topics of my grief, and to create a kind of energy between the pages that would keep the momentum. That there is a kind of haste and there is a kind of repetition in grief that one skips into and I thought that that would be one way to make it work. That there’s a kind of revolving nature to certain words that in my mind needed to be reiterated and those shoot off in different directions depending on what may be thought at that moment. Also just that neurotic tic of going back to a certain memory that keeps coming up. It was one way to represent that part of the grieving process.

Rumpus: You’ve said that the writing of the book came quickly after years of thinking about these ideas and concerns. How long did it take you to write the book?

Martinez: It was over the course of a couple weeks. I was between jobs. I had left my PhD program and I had saved enough money so I had about a month before I had to get another job. I sat down and over fourteen-hour days over the course of a couple weeks I generated the book. Luckily when it was chosen for the National Poetry Series, the editors at Penguin gave me time to do more work on the book. It was wonderfully surprising and great to hear that it had been selected because I’d been brooding on these things and I knew the poems I wanted to write however I’d not given myself the space and time and emotional room to enter into those thoughts and ideas and make them happen. Obviously some of the sections had been written as essays before. I’m obsessive compulsive, not clinically, but when I say it took almost a month I mean I woke at 6 a.m. and stayed awake writing until 3 a.m. somedays, and I was living in language and not seeing anyone for weeks. I think that played a big part of the freedom I had after I chose to leave the PhD program. All this poetry came surging out because I’d been repressing it for a different type of discourse.

Alex Dueben's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and many other publications. He is working on his first novel. More from this author →