I sat with poet, storyteller, and essayist Roberto Carlos Garcia to discuss his third poetry collection, [Elegies], published by Flower Song Press this past December. His previous collections include black / Maybe: An Afro Lyric (Willow Books, 2018) and Melancolía (Červená Barva Press, 2016).
Roberto Carlos Garcia describes himself as a “sancocho of provisions from the Harlem Renaissance, the Spanish Poets of 1929, the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican School, and the Modernists.” He is founder of the cooperative press Get Fresh Books Publishing.
I was excited to talk with Roberto Carlos Garcia about how this collection captures the many forms that grief, memory, and love can take, his creation of the “mixtape” form, and poems as preservation of memories.
The Rumpus: What has it been like to publish a book that explores grief, love, and history during a pandemic when we are living and attempting to navigate these subjects collectively?
Roberto Carlos Garcia: I’ve definitely joined a kind of chorus. There are many books about grief, many poems, essays, and stories. And they’re beautifully written. We’re in a moment of collective grief but we’re cut off from each other physically, so it’s hard to grieve collectively. Recently, the poet Jean Valentine transitioned from this plane of existence. Jean served as Distinguished Poet in Residence at my MFA program. It took a couple of weeks but as her former students, colleagues, and friends we were able to come together via Zoom to remember her. We grieved together by sharing stories of our moments with her, reading her poems to each other, and sitting in silence together. All of this virtually. The time we spent made a huge difference for me. I think of the people who haven’t been able to do that. My hope is that the book helps people with their grief process. I try to live my life in the present, but still acknowledging that the world will go on. We went ahead with the book based on that.
Rumpus: What role can poetry play in exposing and helping us deal with grief?
Garcia: Poetry can help us to sit with grief, to examine it, to endure it, to make peace with it—or none, or all, of the above. Poetry can help us understand that grief is a necessary part of healing, and that we need to feel grief. Hopefully, poetry can help us accept that grief will always be with us; we never lose it, but we learn to bear it, and to live with it.
Rumpus: I am curious about the title of your book. I’ve searched to see if anyone else has asked this question but have not come across it or the answer. Why the brackets around the title word “Elegies?” Are they symbolic in any way or are they simply a stylistic choice?
Garcia: Brackets are usually used to point out words added by someone else. I think of elegies and odes as being about a person but written by someone else. When we write about people we’ve lost or people we praise we are that someone else. Also, visually, I like the representation of trying to contain grief. Containing grief is something I tried to do by using traditional and nontraditional forms.
Rumpus: In the poem “Cento for a Mood,” you write: “Our world survives on two things: first the poet & second the poet.” This line reminds me of this James Baldwin quote: “The poets (by which I mean all artists) are finally the only people who know the truth about us.” What do you think the connection between truth telling and survival is, and what is the poets role in society right now?
Garcia: I love that quote. Baldwin is definitely a roadmap for my incursions into myself. I always fall back on his idea that we have to constantly investigate our reality and our truths. It is hard work but one that poets are suited for if we choose it. I suppose truth telling, beginning with our own selves, helps us survive our situations, but more than that, it sets us on the path to creating the conditions under which we can start thriving. We don’t want to just be surviving all the time. We want to thrive and develop and flourish, and then bring our people with us into the light. In my mind, the poet’s most important role right now is to reject capitalism as ferociously and determinedly as possible. Reject this foggy, happy notion of everything being okay. That’s not to say we need to be miserable. What we need is to “see” the reality and to create art that opens other people’s eyes. Poets can show the world what they otherwise wouldn’t see.
Rumpus: The narrative that poets are able to see the state of being of humanity more clearly than the rest of the world feels like a lot of pressure to me. This idea that our art allows us to enter into a kind of awareness and that we then create from that place of awareness. But what of the poets who are not aware yet? Lucille Clifton argues that perhaps we don’t need to be aware as much as we need to be curious: “I don’t write out of what I know, I write out of what I wonder.” Which brings me to another line in “Cento for a Mood”: “If you can’t be free be a mystery.” How can the poet employ the mystery of wonder as a gateway to freedom?
Garcia: I don’t know. I’m trying to find out. [Laughs] I think that Clifton also said that she asks questions. I feel like capitalism pushes the delusion of needing to be certain. To feel like we know everything for sure. I don’t mean that the world is not round, but I mean that it’s okay to ask questions and not know every damn thing. When we ask the question, we get closer to the right kinds of questions and maybe that points us to what we’re trying to understand, or if we’re lucky to a better understanding of ourselves. Curiosity is wonder and a kind of freedom.
Rumpus: Speaking of curiosity, I am super interested in learning more about your new mixtape form. What are the rules for the form, and how did its creation come about?
Garcia: A mixtape resembles a cento in that it is composed of lines borrowed from other poets, but different because it includes lines from fiction, nonfiction, rap lyrics, and other forms of literature. A “mixtape” can be between fifty and a hundred lines long, and should have at least ten original lines written by the poet. The poem should also have a turn every five to ten lines or so. In [Elegies], I broke the mixtape poem into three parts: A side, B side, and bonus cut. Nicole Sealey’s “Cento for the night I said ‘I love you’” inspired me to try and write a cento. The more I wrote, the more voices entered my head and before I knew it, I had a stack of books around me and music blasting out of my headphones. So, I decided to play around and add whatever I wanted. Play is such an integral part of the creative process.
Rumpus: What advice do you have for poets who are thinking of creating new forms?
Garcia: I say PLAY! It is such a necessary component of the imagination. As children, we play, we imagine, we do with no thought of what, whom or why, we just play. My advice is to play. Don’t worry; you’re not going to break anything.
Rumpus: Do you begin poems thinking about a particular form in mind? A riddle: what comes first, the poem or the form?
Garcia: The poem comes first. Everything else happens in the revision process. Occasionally, I’ll see a poem and its form all at once, but that’s rare for me. The revision process is where the poem says, here’s what I want to do.
Rumpus: Your poems do a lot. As a matter of fact, one thing that struck me about the book was that even the poems that are not titled as elegies act as elegies, and the elegies can sometimes act as odes. Was that crossover and melding something that was planned or something that occurred naturally?
Garcia: Recently, I attended a reading by the poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor. She read from Mama Phife Represents, her new collection in honor of her son Malik Taylor aka Phife Dawg from A Tribe Called Quest. Malik ascended almost four years ago now. She said that part of the reason she wrote the book is she was afraid that she was forgetting, and she didn’t want to forget. That resonated for me so completely because I was terrified that I would forget and so I immediately started writing, a few days after my grandmother died, an elegy a day for almost two months.
I realized in the revision process that to eulogize/elegize is to remember, and to remember is to venerate and to honor. In my mind, the elegy and the ode are like yin and yang, always flowing from one to the other, so I’m glad that came through in the poems.
Rumpus: I love how simply being in spaces where other poets are talking about their process contributes to the possibilities that can exist in our own writing. In that same vein, poets often talk about the importance of being engaged with and in writing communities and I wonder about the inspiration we gather outside of writing communities. In “Elegy in Which I Buy My Uber Driver a Pint of Gin” there is an unspoken and collective understanding between the speaker and the Uber driver. Can you talk a little bit about the communities that impact your writing which aren’t necessarily composed of other writers?
Garcia: I have a lot of older relatives: uncles, aunts, in-laws, cousins, and family friends. They’re well into their seventies and eighties. I love having conversations with them. We get together and bullshit, have drinks sometimes, bbq, etc. They have wonderful perspectives on living in this world compared to the one they came up in. I also have a martial arts community that I’m part of that means a lot to me. My teacher and my fellow practitioners keep me grounded in a way that’s necessary. I’m an English professor and my students give me life as well. That’s when I’m doing everything I can to give back, to share my experiences and knowledge with them. To be as honest about the world with them as I possibly can be. Most of my students don’t want to be writers, they just want to be able to understand the world a little better. That sense of wonder and possibility means a lot to me.
Rumpus: Speaking of being honest about the world: “Elegy in Which I Rename a City for You” imagines the entire city as a world now dedicated to Altagracia. Renaming that world becomes an act of repetition, the act of repetition becomes an act of reclamation, the act of reclamation becomes an exaltation and the exaltation becomes a conjuring where memory is resurrected not just in this poem but throughout the book. How do you decide what memories are given a new life on the page and what memories stay in your head?
Garcia: I don’t know. The poem decides. Whatever that groove is, that mysterious feeling that says to a poet “Yes, this is working,” that’s what I listen to and let guide me in my writing. Jean Valentine would often answer questions about her poetry by saying “I don’t know.” I think that it’s okay for poetry to be a mystery, necessary even, especially to the writer. The closest I can come to answering this question right now is that it has to feel good in the poem and on the page, and it shouldn’t hurt anyone. That’s important, too. As Kiese Laymon has said in the past, and I’m paraphrasing here, be gentle with your people in your writing.
Rumpus: I love the idea of leaning into the unknown as a necessity. It makes me think about how in [Elegies], as well as in your previous book, black/Maybe, you employ the essay form seamlessly alongside poetic form. Is it known to you beforehand what genre your writing will take? What is your process in deciding what becomes a poem and what needs to be excavated in a more explanatory way?
Garcia: The essay gives me space to ramble and to search. Poetry requires precision, so when I need to ramble to figure out what I’m talking about I know I need to write an essay! [Laughs] Also, creating a hybrid poetry collection, one with essay(s) in it, allows me to unravel the book’s themes in a more complex way. The essay can function as a moment of exhalation for the reader, a moment where they can engage head on before returning to the imagery, metaphor, symbolism and music of poetry. Between the essay and the poem I can surprise myself, see the complexities, the contradictions, the failures.
Rumpus: Yo! I have never thought of the essay as a moment of exhalation. A break from the music and permission to exist as a writer in other ways. In “Found Poem,” a text message that comes through from “Rosebud” acts as a reminder that the speaker is a writer even and especially when they are not writing. Which I think can be easy to forget. How do you exist outside of being a writer, and how do those identities inform your writing?
Garcia: I don’t believe it’s possible for me to exist outside of writing. Because I write I see the world a certain way, I respond to things in a certain way, it is every fiber of who I am. Being a writer is my eyesight, my spirit, and my reaching out with “the force.” [Laughter] There’s no separation. I’m investigating and creating and recreating and revising and questioning all the time. Existing in this way does leave me/us open though, wide open, and vulnerable. I think there’s a tremendous vulnerability surging through that poem because of that living and writing. All that connection. Sometimes that means I need to cut the input and sit in silence.
Rumpus: Hmm. I want to move away from the silence and talk about music, which is a huge theme in the book. How does music play a role in your creative process?
Garcia: Music is everything. I believe that good storytellers find a rhythm and they ride that rhythm until the end of the story. They sing it and dance it and perform the story. That’s music and that’s the role it plays in my life and by extension, my writing.
Rumpus: I’d like to end the interview where we started, honoring a kind of musical loop when we really love how a soundtrack makes us feel. In the poem “Elegy for All of It,” the poem ends with a list of names of people who lost their lives due to state-sanctioned violence, more often than not with no consequence to the police officers or systems involved. What is poetry’s role in navigating grief and justice?
Garcia: I try to be a witness. Writing enables me to do that. So many of our people do not receive the justice they deserve. We can never let that slide. We must chronicle it and keep their stories alive so that when we are in a position to demand justice, their names have not faded from history. Our roles are to ensure that history is ever-present in the work and that we’re not just creating a reactionary literature. Americans live in constant shock. They can never believe what’s happening; they’re always surprised. America is exceptional at repeating its sins. As writers, we cannot allow ourselves to catch that sickness.
Photograph of Roberto Carlos Garcia by Roberto Carlos Garcia.