The Rumpus Poetry Book Club Chat with Benjamin Garcia
The Rumpus Poetry Book Club chats with Benjamin Garcia about his debut collection Thrown in the Throat (Milkweed, August 2020), how poems find their form, the size of Texas, trying to balance reading and writing, and more.
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 join the Rumpus Poetry Book Club, click here. Upcoming poets include Sumita Chakraborty, Vijay Seshadri, Molly Spencer, Kimberly Grey, torrin a. greathouse, Erin Belieu, and more!
This Rumpus Poetry Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Benjamin Garcia: I’m excited for your questions. About the book or process or what have you.
Emily Oliver: Ben, I was really struck by how the cover photo held so many resonances to the poetry in the collection. How did you encounter that cover art?
Benjamin Garcia: I… googled myself. Haha. I needed to find an old poem for an application. And some other Benjamin Garcia came up as a result. He’s a visual artist and his work is amazing. The other Benjamin has some super amazing art; he works in collage. I work in a type of collage. So it really worked out. This art piece is called “haert baet,” I believe, with that inversion of letters.
Annata Tempinski: Hello Benjamin, thank you for sharing your work. I found the flow of phrases ending in one or more words that jumpstart the next phrase unique and interesting.
Benjamin Garcia: Thanks, Annata. That finishing a phrase and jumping into another came from doing that as a kid. My family had that practice of playing with words and language and phrases, and then my friends and I would do that jokingly as well. Just associative word play.
Stalina: Hi, yes, so what inspires you to write?
Benjamin Garcia: Reading inspires me to write. Reading of any sort, not just poetry. But especially poetry. If I have a deadline coming up, I have to force myself to not read so that I don’t get distracted by writing poems.
Emily Oliver: Seems like a good type of procrastination!
Annata Tempinski: I start writing a poem, leave it, and then come back and make changes to some of it. Do you find that you write the poem once and it’s done?
Mattia: Because you don’t want to start new ones while you’re editing?
Benjamin Garcia: Yes, Mattia. exactly. But also I don’t want to get fired from my day job. Haha. I have to make sure I meet those deadlines.
Brian S: When I wrote about why we chose this collection for the Poetry Book Club, I spent a little time on the poems titled “The Language in Question,” especially the formal aspects of them because I thought that formality played off the title really well. The titles reminded me of legalistic prose in a way. Can you talk a little about how you think about form while you’re writing?
Benjamin Garcia: Form is not always something I think about consciously. I’m usually just playing with words on the page first, usually from a note I scribbled somewhere. Form sometimes comes naturally when I’m writing. Like the first of the odes just showed up that way. The poem “Conversations with My Father” just sort of wanted to be in those divided sections. Sometimes a poem wants to find a form, so it can be a very helpful revision exercise. And the form, even when it fails and I have to go back to the original, teaches me something about the poem and the form it wants.
After the first ode, I wrote another. And then one more. I considered if I was getting stuck in a pattern or following something like a series. I never tried to force the odes, but in the back of my mind I could feel one forming from notes and observations.
Mattia: How much do you like to form a thought/line/idea in your head before you start writing it down?
Benjamin Garcia: Mostly, “The Language in Question” poems followed fun, even though they are not about fun subjects. Language itself is fun to work and rework. So, I let that lead me. I try to write down anything that might be or become a line as soon as possible. Those things go away. Catch it while it’s there. Figure out what to do with it later, if anything.
Annata Tempinski: Yes, true!
Brian S: I’ve heard lots of poets say that, for what it’s worth. They write a poem and then find they are writing a bunch in the same mode, as though something clicked for them. The subject matter worked unusually well in a particular form and they just run with it.
Benjamin Garcia: Yes, for me the odes helped give structure to something that was wild and hard to control, so form let me create pace and perimeter.
Annata Tempinski: This a beautiful phrase: “her dream of a thousand green wings shimmering like shreds of aluminum.”
Benjamin Garcia: Thank you! That’s from one of the older poems in the book.
Brian S: What kind of timeframe does this book cover? How long did it take you to write?
Benjamin Garcia: Since it’s my first book, all of my life in a sense. But more rigidly, the oldest poem is about twelve years old, with most of the book written in the last four years.
In some ways it feels like my second book. I’m very glad my MFA thesis was not published, haha.
Brian S: You and me both. I’ve thought about sneaking back into the university library and disappearing it at times…
Benjamin Garcia: I once checked out Eduardo Corral’s MFA thesis from Iowa. It’s fascinating to see a writer change and not change. So many of the poems in Eduardo’s Slow Lightning have almost nothing to do with his thesis. Maybe a line from a poem here and there. And a wildly different poem in the book.
Annata Tempinski: Which poets do you admire, Benjamin?
Benjamin Garcia: That’s a big question. I admire so many. Some that had a very direct influence on my work:
Amy Beeder. Her attention to sound is impeccable. Dana Levin taught me about lines, line breaks, pacing, white space in her work. Alice Fulton can pack so much into one poem. She taught me how to keep it complex but still allow the reader to follow. To trust the reader. To juggle very complex ideas in one poem, and that even if I don’t understand the whole poem, I can still want to. And that wanting to understand is so important to keep a reader’s attention.
Annata Tempinski: What types of books do you enjoy reading other than poetry? For example, mysteries, etc. I love reading stories that take place in other countries, and the description of places and culture make me imagine I’m traveling, too.
Benjamin Garcia: I like short stories. Literary and science fiction. I think they move a lot like poems. The attention to language and use of scene/image. I’m especially interested in openings and endings.
Stalina: How much revision did the twelve-year-old poem undergo?
Benjamin Garcia: That poem was largely kept intact. I wasn’t really in a place to enter it again in the same way but I could clear up images, diction, repetition, form, etc. more easily. So there are changes. But the heart of the poem is still there.
Another older poem I published and thought I was done, but it never quite felt right. It wasn’t until I was revising the book, after NPS selected it, that the ending came through. That’s “To the Unborn Sibling.” The version on Newfound can show you how much it changed
Mattia: Totally different direction: I found this book incredibly moving as a queer and trans person. One thing I particularly love are the various approaches to bodies, sex, sexuality, exploration, etc. that are an invitation to the reader without necessarily trying to explain every part of the experience. How do you think about and approach that, and has that changed for you over time?
Benjamin Garcia: So glad to hear that this book resonated with you. It was my hope that this book would reach LGBTQ folks and maybe offer something new. Orientation and gender was always there to some degree as a subject in my writing, since I grew up as a gay kid feeling out of place.
Emily Oliver: Related to Mattia’s question, I was really interested in how vibrant the language was… each poem felt insistent on being pleasure to the ear, beautifully made, whether about love or devastations. Is that reflective of the politics of your poetry? Poetics/politics of ornate joy?
Benjamin Garcia: It didn’t start to get more open, embracing, forward, loud, whatever you want to call it until I started working in sexual health as an educator. Then all of the philosophies behind the job I do started coming into my own life, and into my writing. Sex positive, attention to language, not looking away, being honest with myself, with others, etc.
Annata Tempinski: When you write, do you prefer quiet? Or, is music playing?
Benjamin Garcia: Annata, I usually write in silence. Though when I’m in the zone it doesn’t matter what noise is going on around, usually; I recently found deep listening sounds or relaxing sounds on YouTube. They are like three hours long and really can help you concentrate.
Brian S: Can you talk some about the influence of Texas on your work? Beyond family; I’m thinking more about the landscape itself.
Benjamin Garcia: Yes, so I grew up in Texas and New Mexico and both of them definitely influenced my writing.
I love Texas, and also I don’t love Texas. Texas is where I experienced the most homophobia and intense racism, both to the point of fearing for my physical safety. But also some of the most big-hearted folks I know live there, who would do anything for the ones they love.
Brian S: I haven’t lived there since I was seven, but most of my extended family is there and I know what you mean about those seeming contradictions. You find them in the same person.
Benjamin Garcia: I think that love/hate relationship comes through. Which is also a feeling I hear from a lot of folks who live in Texas. They dislike a lot of things and wouldn’t live anywhere else.
Absolutely agree, Brian.
Stalina: I feel you, speaking as a Tejana.
Benjamin Garcia: I mean even that, two states overlapping. Tejas/Texas.
Brian S: It can be both the greatest thing in the world and the most frustrating thing at the same time.
But I also wanted to say that I have never read a description of the vastness of Texas when you’re trying to get across it like what you wrote in “To the Unborn Sibling.” There are states where you don’t realize just how big they are, and then there’s Texas.
Annata Tempinski: And too, the descriptions of people are very vivid, giving the reader a great picture.
Benjamin Garcia: Oh, when we used to drive from Houston to ABQ it was like Texas would never end. Once we got to New Mexico, it seemed like such a short drive across the state in comparison.
Brian S: I tried to drive a U-Haul from the New Mexico border to the Louisiana border in a day once on I-10 and I failed miserably. I collapsed somewhere between San Antonio and Houston. Florida, where I lived for six years, is the same way, if you’re going to the southern end.
Benjamin Garcia: Oh yeah, we used to go a different way because my family was afraid of the checkpoints on I-10. But that stretch is also so long between El Paso and Houston.
Brian S: I don’t doubt it. I actually looked up I-287 is it? To see if I’d ever driven it, and no, but I’ve crossed it a bunch in my life.
Benjamin Garcia: We used to go to New Mexico on literal jars of change we would collect throughout the year, back when gas was around a dollar a gallon.
Stalina: How did poetry enter your life?
Benjamin Garcia: From reading in the closet. I was in sixth grade when I checked out my first poetry book from the public library. We were supposed to memorize a poem for class. Everyone else went with stuff in our handout. I walked the book stacks and didn’t realize it would slowly change the course of my life.
Annata Tempinski: Cool!
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? Anything coming out that we should have our eyes out for?
Benjamin Garcia: I’m in one of those periods where I’m trying to read less so I can get work done, since it’s so hard to concentrate these days, so not actively reading… But I have so many books I can’t wait to get to.
Brian S: That’s been my last six months, I feel like. The Sealey Challenge has jumpstarted my reading habits again, at precisely the wrong time since the fall semester, for everyone in my house, is about to kick off in some form.
Annata Tempinski: I love the idea of teaching kids to memorize a poem or two. I can still recite a few and happy to say so.
Brian S: I’ve been asking all our authors this over the last few months: what’s it been like releasing a book in the middle of a pandemic?
Benjamin Garcia: Haha, not fun, but also rewarding in unexpected ways.
I am very lucky to feel the support of so many folks I’ve met on my journey. I get to read with Dana Levin and Kazim Ali for my launch tomorrow! We are all in different time zones. That wouldn’t have happened before.
I try to think of everything I’m grateful for. Because yes, it does suck to have a book out in a pandemic, but we will have live readings again one day, and we are finding ways of keeping communities going while we social distance.
Brian S: Thanks so much for your time tonight, Benjamin!
Annata Tempinski: Yes, thank you, Benjamin, and many good successes on your journey!
Emily Oliver: Thanks Ben! it was wonderful to hear more about your perspective and process.
Benjamin Garcia: Thank you all so very much. This has been a great conversation with you.
Stalina: I echo! Thank you!
Mattia: Thank you! Absolutely loved this collection and will definitely return and read it repeatedly.
Benjamin Garcia: Night, all!
Photograph of Benjamin Garcia by Lynda Le Photography.