Poetry as Archeology: Talking with Roy G. Guzmán

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“Catrachos,” the titular poem in Roy G. Guzmán’s debut collection, introduces a collection that is an examination of personal history, family history, queer history, and cultural history. It begins:

Time blunts the crooked / to savage pews / Once / on the sibling stumps / of a
beat Caribbean pine / my cousins invite me to sit / My legs fold like melted candles
/ If I’d worn the maracas / -sizzled skirt of my reveries / their beamed liturgy: /
¡Maricón! / ¡Maricón! / ¡Maricón! / Fold your hands / boy / walk straight / never
graduate your hungers…

Guzmán was born in Honduras and raised in Miami. Catrachos heralds the arrival of a distinctive poetic voice; visually compelling, filled with distinctive, wide-ranging, and contrasting images, inventive in its language and forms, and brave for its candor and introspection.

Guzmán and I visited by video conference from their home in Minneapolis. We talked about how history informs their work and the paths they traveled to access that history.

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The Rumpus: First, how are you?

Roy G. Guzmán: It’s been a struggle. My family in Honduras, they’ve also had to go into quarantine. It’s a smaller country, obviously, but when it comes to pandemics Honduras knows what to do. For me, it’s mostly just this kind of rhythm, this being indoors all the time. I’m an extrovert. Even if I’m not talking to someone, I need to go to a coffee shop and work or go to the library and work or just feel like I can go anywhere and do those things —they make me feel sane.

Rumpus: What led you to poetry?

Guzmán: Growing up in Honduras, a lot of what I now know as poetry came to me through the National Anthem which has all these different strophes that we had to memorize. It’s a long anthem, but incredibly poetic, and early on I was exposed to this other sort of artistic language that of course is part nationalistic but is also a language you don’t use in everyday speech. I went to art school as a kid. My biological father is an artist. I thought I was going to be a visual artist; drawing was not a hobby—it defined me. I did that for a while. As a child in Miami, I went to a magnet program that dealt with visual arts.

Having said that, I was exposed to poetry via Rubén Darío, who was this idol in Central America and of course in some Latin American literary circles. He was seen as someone who gave language to our people, and he was seen as someone who also cared about Latin American issues.

My relationship to poetry has been a relationship I’ve had to different forms of art. It’s been me learning and being frustrated and wrestling to see what language can do for me. Early on, language was a thing for me to use as means to an end, as a means to advocate for myself, as a means to advocate for my family. I was connected to language as survival as opposed to language as aesthetics or language as a career.

All of these contradictions, all these different constellation points added to me being interested in language and being interested in art-making.

Rumpus: Catrachos has an aesthetic that seems informed by your interest in visual art.

Guzmán: Absolutely, one colleague at the University of Minnesota called it holographic. When she read it, it gave her this sense of holograms. It gave her this sense of three four-dimensional structures.

In language, I’m not just thinking about image, I’m thinking, What is a word containing? To me a word is containing colors. It’s containing different shapes. It’s containing different tones, different kinds of attitudes. The word is already containing so many different sounds, and I use that as part of my writing instinct. If I’m not giving you something that narratively makes sense, I want it to make sense through your other senses. I want it to make sense through color. I want you to ask, Why has the collection gone from pink to orange, why has it gone from orange to black? Why is it that you hear this cacophonous word in the middle of something that felt soft, something that felt more meditative? Art for me is about connections at the same time that it’s about tension between things.

Rumpus: Talk about the title, Catrachos. I know its general connection to Honduran history, but it also evokes family and seems to have an expansive meaning within the collection.

Guzmán: I was working around this idea of a book through language. The title didn’t come until later. Some of these poems were written before the title came through. “Catrachos” as a word is historically pregnant with possibilities and trauma. Before, catrachos was a slogan. It was a word people threw around, but in Honduras, catrachos, at least the way that I was raised, had a very low-class, working-class connection. I grew up going to a private school in Honduras. I don’t remember hearing catrachos in a positive light. Even though it was part of my background and my upbringing, it was a word I was kind of ashamed to use. I was like, “No, you call me Honduran, I’m not this.” Then, as with diasporas, in Miami, I would meet other Hondurans. There, catrachos was always a code of arms that would allow us to feel more comfortable around each other, to say, “yes, you’re my sibling,” or “yes, you’re my cousin. Yes, I know this word that other people do not know about how to call you.” So yes, it became a term that accrued value the more I learned about it.

Rumpus: Within the collection and within your work overall, there are queerodactyls, which are a mechanism for expression, in some ways even a form. Can you talk about the origin of queerodactyl, what it allows in your work, and what it means in the collection?

Guzmán: I was out for breakfast with an ex, and we were talking about dinosaurs. We were talking about pterodactyls, and he queered it into to something that was like pteroqueer. And I said, “oh, like queerodactyl.” We were just joking back and forth. The more I thought about this word, queerodactyl, I don’t know why, but it sort of became this portal to access memories of my background that I wouldn’t have otherwise or that I didn’t think mattered. Much of my story of my upbringing is coded in the queerodactyl poems. I think of the queerodactyl space as informed by reality, but it exists in some other kind of portal, some other kind of dimension. There’s more than one queerodactyl in these poems. They become these symbolic, metaphorical, metaphysical kinds of spaces. That sequence is informed by movies like Pan’s Labyrinth, by Beasts of the Southern Wild. There is the question of what happens when the child, specifically the child or the teenager, has experienced so much trauma that they must then create some kind of, not safe space, but alternate reality as a way to cope with what’s there.

Sometimes when I read these poems, even though they have so much attitude in them, I almost see them as a bedtime story. This is a space for the child. This is a space where we get to imagine the past, where we get to imagine the spirits, and we get to summon them. I think that while they are very much informed by a lot of practices like voguing, by a lot of things like sexuality, sensuality for instance, some of them come from a place of innocence and the loss of innocence, or the preservation of innocence, even as you age. Where is the idea of the child in the adult? The poems are very much concerned with that.

In Catrachos, I think of the hands on the cover art being as cries for wanting to step out. The poems deal a lot with burial and exhuming, digging up bones, digging up stories and myths. They’re asking, what is trying to escape the text and why is it trying to connect to the reader? If there were secrets that the book was sharing with the reader, what would those secrets be? In the book, a lot of secrets are shared.

Rumpus: That unearthing allows so much. It’s a connection to history and ancestors and the past, in ways that are tactile and physical but also completely beyond that, spiritual and innate. That seems vital to the conversations you are having.

Guzmán: There is more than one way of digging up, of uncovering the past. The book deals with many forms of shame, from shame of being queer, to shame of being Latinx, to shame of having to learn another language, which is the primary language I write this text in, to shame of poverty, as it comes up in the first poem in the second section, “The American Dream,” the shame of having worked as an undocumented child and never knowing how much that constructed my identity and constructed my approach to the world. And wanting to bury that, right? “The American Dream” is not just about this illusion of progress and success. “The American Dream” is literally about burying yourself, burying parts of yourself as you become this ideal Americanized version of yourself—a US citizen.

Rumpus: I want to go back to your discussion of tension between things. Over time, tensions between different ideas or images become a new way of making connections. Catrachos seems almost stream of consciousness sometimes, but there’s clearly a larger design at work. Can you talk about your process for creating poems with dramatic tensions and assembling a collection that contains those and connects those tensions?

Guzmán: The poet Chris Martin described my work as baroque. When I think about the word baroque, there are two possibilities: One that is highly ornamental. But there’s this other way of defining it which is through the maze. I think of baroque as like the minotaur. The minotaur for me, the question of the maze, the question of the labyrinth, is something that is informed by Jorge Luis Borges but also by my fascination in mathematics, by my fascination in paleontology, by my fascination with dinosaurs. You’re excavating things, but your excavation doesn’t take you where you wanted; it takes you to all these unexpected moments. Like an Indiana Jones type of journey.

Something important to me is the non sequitur. The non sequitur within the poem, the non sequitur between poems. Non sequitur as the idea of escape. I’m interested in what is escape? How do you fuck shit up? How do you fuck the system up and get out? And that to me is not just inspired by scholars; it’s also inspired by video games. When you’re in a dungeon, when you’re in a space that you shouldn’t be in, how do you manage to go in there, do what you need to do, and escape, what French theorists call le dispositif, you know, the bomb. How do you set the bomb and then easily escape?

So for me a lot of that is part of my poems. I’m writing about the traumatic episode. But there’s something about trauma that doesn’t want to be translated. Well, I can just divert that. Let me see if I can trick that moment into me coming back then reinterpreting, reentering that moment that at first didn’t want to be revealed. What if, through these non sequiturs, I show you a sense or process? What if by juxtaposing these two elements that seem very random, I show you that in, fact, in the space of trauma, in the space of the immigrant, that in the imagination of the child, those two incredibly bipolar worlds actually cohere. They can exist side by side, and for me, that’s a question that absolutely—I’m invested in that question when it comes to society. How is it that we can live together? How can all of us non sequiturs live together in something that doesn’t make sense but also makes sense? That is important to my sense of process, and it’s also important to me to show those disruptions in poems.

Rumpus: Those non sequiturs combine toward connections, toward an understanding that is more magnificent, that is magnified because it’s not revealed immediately. If the point of unexpected moments is to say, some of this is chaotic and bipolar and there are non sequiturs, then clarity becomes almost antagonistic.

Guzmán: Absolutely, and I think clarity is its own non sequitur. There are moments where you can grasp onto something, but, don’t get it twisted, you’re only a guest to this event. And you have to be a guest to this event because ultimately, even as I’m telling you these things, I will always be a guest to my own memories and to my own trauma, too. Because I’ve written about it. It’s always happening after.

Non sequiturs were important for me to think through in the very first poem, “Catrachos.” This was one of the poems that The Rumpus published. For me, what this poem does, from the beginning to the end, is essentially give the reader a kind of legend, give the reader directions and tools, a micro toolbox, what they might need in order to excavate through the rest of the collection.

One thing I was thinking about is that the collection, by virtue of this poem, begins with the word “time.” And time has something very strange that it does to memory, especially to the mind that has gone through trauma and violence. In the first sentence, “time blunts the crooked to savage pews.” And I’m packing a lot there, but that’s the thing about this whole collection. It starts with that. It goes through this whole memory of me as a child, and I’m visiting a complicated memory. How many times do I have to kill the child within me? How many times does the child within me need to die in order for me to begin to think about forgiveness? It has to be a form of forgiveness about myself.

Rumpus: In reading the collection and in our conversation today, I’m thinking about vogueing, Katy Perry, Burger King, M.I.A., Björk… Is pop culture a language? Is it a bridge? Does it allow for connections between cultures? It’s clear you’re steeped in pop culture; how else is it functioning in your work?

Guzmán: I always go back to this idea that the best pop songs have something about the human condition that’s so beautifully crystallized. The idea of a pop song is just something about the way we breathe, something about the way that we as humans navigate the world and also the ways in which we become central stations. Things pass us, different experiences, the ways in which we become the crossroads of all these different things.

It’s easy to say that American culture has functioned as a form of imperialism, as a hegemonic force around the world. American culture has treated other cultures like gloves, but what it has done, at least for me is it has shown me that music, which is the heart of my work, music and pop music especially, that there’s something eternal about it, almost archetypal. I listen to a perfectly crafted pop song, and I think, This is older than me, and this will outlast me. That’s how I think of it, and poetry is that.

Rumpus: What’s happening in your work right now? What are the topics and themes that have your attention, and what are you seeing in your writing lately?

Guzmán: In Catrachos, there sort of was a blueprint in me that I kept working towards. In the newer work, I thought I could easily be done talking about immigration, about queerness. The queerodactyl has been left behind and all these things have been left behind, and I realized, oh God, no! because, as I read Catrachos, I sometimes have more complicated views of this same material. So, some of the poems that have been picked up by magazines lately continue to deal with the US-Mexico border.

One project I’ve been working on and thinking about is an indictment of the healthcare system in the US. That project feels like a story within a story within a story within a story. It has commercials in it, made up commercials. There are some poems that are written from the perspective of Ronald McDonald. There’s this story of my friend Vicky who passed the night before I started my MFA here in Minnesota. She’s very much in there. That work seems very hypertextual, absolutely hybrid.

I’m also working on, I think it’s a memoir, and one book that’s been very influential to me is Children of the Land by Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. He writes about being at risk for being deported. That book has moved me so much. I’m also thinking more about Maggie Nelson, thinking about Bluets a lot but also thinking about more formal memoirs like Ordinary Girls by Jaquira Díaz. This also a memoir that came out of Miami.

Rumpus: What’s it like launching a debut during a pandemic when you can’t be physically present out in the world with your book?

Guzmán: Every time I have become frustrated or disenchanted by something around the book, or what would have been the book tour, when I look at the book and when I look at these persona poems and think about these stylistic choices and speaking from the beyond, there’s this notion of what happens when the voice has been silenced. There are lots of ways in which this government continues to silence voices. It does it through direct death or negligence, but history continues. In spite of death, history continues.

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Photograph of Roy G. Guzmán by Kai Coggin.


Michael Kleber-Diggs is a poet, essayist, and literary critic. Among other places, his writing has appeared in McSweeney’s, Poetry City, North Dakota Quarterly, Pollen Midwest, Paper Darts, Water~Stone Review, and a few anthologies. More from this author →