The Poem is Second, Living is First: An Interview with Tim Z. Hernandez
During our Zoom interview, poet and author Tim Z. Hernandez radiated with joy as he spoke about the upcoming book release for his newest collection of poetry, Some of the Light: New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press, 2023).
“My daughter and son are actually going to introduce me,” he said. “I told them they can do whatever they want to do, say whatever they want to say.”
Hearing Hernandez describe his children as an integral part of his most recent poetry collection shines a light on his signature voice: genuine, vulnerable, thought-provoking. In one of the new poems, the single father struggles to find beauty in the mundane: “Who has time for poetry anymore? / I’m writing this as I’m walking. / There is muzak on the loudspeakers / of the dentist’s office, and I must / make poetry of it…”
Hernandez sees his newest poems in a much a different light: “I hesitate to call them poems,” he says. “They’re more like contemplations, reflections, or meditations—just glimpses of life with my children and the world around us.” These refractions, as he calls them, make up a new breed of hypnotic poetry in Some of the Light. A generous gift to his readers, the book also contains selections from his previous collections of poetry, a compilation of the last twenty-five years of his work, from Skin Tax (Heyday Books, 2004, and winner of the American Book Award), a view of manhood inside a dubious culture of masculinity, to Culture of Flow (Monkey Puzzle Press, 2012), an epic poem about the interconnectedness of humans and nature, and Natural Takeover of Small Things (University of Arizona Press, Camino del Sol Series, 2013, and 2014 Colorado Book Award) a picture of the fertile San Joaquin Valley and its people.
Despite such a prolific poetry career, Hernandez is probably best known for his memorable work of nonfiction, All They Will Call You (University of Arizona Press, Camino del Sol Series, 2017), a project, he says, “took up to 90% of my days…for a research-heavy, historical book.” The book became more than the sum of its parts, the definitive work about “the worst airplane disaster in California history.” In addition, Hernandez is the author of award-winning novels and plays, a professor and consultant, a man for all seasons. At his very core, however, as he says in this interview, he is a poet.
I spoke with Tim Hernandez via Zoom, on a rainy California afternoon, about our shared love of poetry, family, and culture. According to Hernandez, the most important thing to remember is something we lovers of poetry often forget—people.
The Rumpus: Congratulations on Some of the Light! What a fabulous book! I see you have dedicated it to your children, Rumi and Salvador. Is writing poetry a way of loving them?
Tim Z. Hernandez: Yes, it is. There’s so much I can say about that. My children and I were in the position of living together, full-time, when they were in their early teens—I actually talk about the circumstances that led to this in some of the poems—and in the beginning, I felt overwhelmed. As a single parent, with two children in their early teens, I felt great responsibility to raise them well. It’s difficult to do with two parents in the house, but with one? Sometimes, it felt impossible.
Over the years, it began to occur to me that service to my children was my calling. When they were younger, I was so ambitious, constantly pushing myself to establish my career, make a name for myself, get a degree…. I had to stop myself and pause. I realized my children are my purpose, my life. They bring me joy and awareness. They’re my teachers. When I started to see parenting this way, it became much easier for me, much more enjoyable.
During the pandemic—as you know, most of us were quarantined with our children or spouses in the same home—it was a privilege to be together. Sharing the same house caused me to grow a lot during that time. I have always journaled, so I began to chronicle our time together, keeping notes of what was happening in our household. I wasn’t thinking of these in terms of poetry, but more like chronicles of our lives together. It wasn’t until a year and a half ago when it suddenly dawned on me that I might have a book in that accumulation of material.
Rumpus: And here it is: Some of the Light. I love that title!
Hernandez: My children are my light, as I said. For all of us, there are various sources of light we take in to nourish ourselves, and since I couldn’t give all of mine away, I just gave you some of the light.
Rumpus: The cover looks magical, and it complements the mystical feel of interconnectedness in space and time, a theme found in these poems. Did you design it yourself?
Hernandez: No, that’s all thanks to Beacon Press and their wonderful team. I gave them a couple of ideas, some themes in the book, and they ran with it. It’s beautiful, almost universal art, tying all these elements together.
Rumpus: You had to select poems from your larger body of work, other collections you’ve published, previously. How did you choose which ones would go in here?
Hernandez: That’s probably what took the most time trying to figure out—which poems would go into this book. For me, putting this book together was a synchronistic experience that took place during the pandemic. I had been writing these contemplations, reflections, or meditations, about life with my children and the world around us. About the same time, I received a notice from two of my previous publishers. They were reverting the book rights back to me, since the books were no longer in print. I loved those books—my first book ever, Skin Tax, even won the American Book Award—and so I thought about how I still wanted those poems in the world. I started to think about it all and had the idea of publishing a new and selected works. That’s when it hit me: Wow, I’ve been writing poems for twenty-five years! That blew my mind. It felt like I had just started writing yesterday.
Culture of Flow was one long poem that was published as a book, written when I worked for a River Conservancy for four years in the Central Valley, and I spent a lot of time sitting on the side of riverbanks and restoring trails and things like that. I think about the Seminole philosophy, that to live a fulfilled life you should do three things: have a child, write a book, and plant a tree. I feel like that work was my tree. I knew I couldn’t take out any part of that, so it had to remain whole to be part of this book.
The other two books required more thought. I asked myself, “Which poems are at the heart of these collections? For Skin Tax, my first one, it was more difficult to choose. It is one of the most vulnerable books I’ve ever written—about machismo, male sexuality, male identity. I wrote those poems from 1995 to 1999, in my early twenties, and they were an expression of my experience as a man, a male removed from the macho culture that had surrounded me. In a way, I’m glad that was my first book, because if I was willing to be that vulnerable, I could go almost anywhere from there! There were some poems I didn’t want to touch, they seemed too vulnerable. Eventually, I did choose a handful of poems I thought represented the heart of the book.
With Natural Takeover Of Small Things, it was also important to choose some that were at the heart of the book. I see the changes in the way I was writing—I was writing very lyrical poetry early on. The poems I’m writing now are different. I guess you could say there’s rhythm and lyrical music in them, but they are more straightforward. A lot of the work I was writing in the beginning was word-heavy and more lyrical. I thought it would be nice to put them in this collection, just to show the trajectory of my writing. People can see how I went from there to now, where I am today.
Rumpus: I am grateful that you decided these poems needed to be in the world for new readers and for teachers who are bringing your work into their classrooms! I do think that they’re relatable and accessible—all those things we say about the forthrightness of your poetry—but they also carry a story of more than you. They confirm our interconnectedness. Did these themes bring everything together?
Hernandez: I think I was able to see things more thematically. At the time I started putting this collection together, we were all inside of a pandemic, and we were all turning inward. We weren’t going outside; we weren’t really going anywhere. We were all turning inward, literally, and metaphorically.
I started to contemplate my own past, and when I looked at the poems over the last twenty-five years, they are a chronicle of it. I thought, Maybe I can build a collection around this, thinking about the meditations written during the pandemic and the previous collections. The glimpses of my world right now and the glimpses of the past—the spiritual and emotional growth, fatherhood, all these other things I went through along the way—were best represented by love and light. It made sense, thematically, to put them into one book.
Rumpus: These glimpses, as you call them, show up in many ways. You have a numbered series called “Refractions” in here. “Refraction Number One” is about a detention facility you’re your home by the Texas/Mexico border, where children are being housed. “Refraction Number Two” is about a father appearing in court. These are refractions of light, or snapshots of time. I think they’re perfectly named.
Hernandez: Good. I’m glad to hear that because I wasn’t sure when I was naming them.
A lot of these newer ones were just contemplations, or thoughts, that I was writing. I write a lot in fragments these days because that’s how much time I have. I write according to the time I have. Sometimes, these words come to me as I’m sitting in the car waiting for my children or picking up my son after school. I’d write them down and say, “Maybe I’ll return this and make it a longer poem later,” but I never did. It became sort of something I started to collect: a bunch of these little thoughts. When I started to look at them, I saw they were alike for reasons, but a lot of the “Refractions” are about love.
Rumpus: One of the first poems in the book talks about refractions through broken glass: “blown particles / of a glass I broke. Each refraction, / a glimpse of our despair…”
Hernandez: I don’t even remember what it was I shattered—the piece of glass in the poem—but it occurred to me as I started to sweep it up, that’s what these things I’ve been writing are: different angles of light, hitting different spaces, all around the subject of love. Whether it’s about fatherhood, relationships, spirituality—love for God, the Creator—they all have to do with love. I knew that was the theme that bound them together. They were like one whole that was shattered into smaller pieces—that is how we get pieces of light that are refracted—and the theme that bound them together was love.
Rumpus: I love that! There’s a balance of joy and sadness as you point out how we need each other, even in isolation.
Hernandez: That’s right. Yes.
Rumpus: One poem called, “Time Capsule” is about a receipt found in a book of poems by Robert Creeley, the language poet who wrote with such sparse language: “…on October 11, 2010, I was ordering / one special #20. And when it was gone, / it was gone. I still have heartburn. This receipt, / the only evidence of where I was, / or might’ve been.” This is a quick snapshot of time, isn’t it?
Hernandez: Yes, a glimpse. Most of the new poems are glimpses of time. Only a few poems in are longer, and only because they hold longer themes or subjects.
Rumpus: In “Single Parent Soliloquy” the speaker says, “Some days I catch myself writing simply to remind myself I am a poet,” which is wonderful and heartbreaking at the same time.
Hernandez: Some of the Light is my first book of poetry book in ten years, so when I was writing that poem, it felt like it was an actual ceremony of reclamation for me. When I published Skin Tax, my first book, one of the most vulnerable books I’ve ever written,
I was almost scared to be that vulnerable. Then I thought, Hell with it I’m just gonna write my experience, and let the chips fall where they may. The response to the book was so unexpected. People appreciated the vulnerability of the poems. It taught me that it was okay to be that vulnerable, and it freed me up to write about almost anything. Skin Tax made me feel very free, creatively, and even in my own personal life.
As time went on, I started to write novels and research-based books. My book, All They Will Call You, required me to focus on research and writing a non-fiction account of history. It took up to 90% of my days, and it was a research-heavy, historical book. These projects were important, but I realized I had reestablished layers on myself. I felt boxed in again, and afraid.
Again, during a series of events over the last few years, and then the pandemic, I was able to get back into a place that I hadn’t been since the very beginning. I thought, Hell with it I’m just gonna write my experience as it really happened and let things fall where they may. This is my truth, and I wrote about it all: fatherhood, relationships, all the things that I experience.
So, I see this book as a bookend to the first book I ever wrote, this New and Selected Works.
I’m really glad, and I feel really strongly about this collection, because the poems that came out of it were as honest and vulnerable as I could write them. It makes me happy to be back to this place as a writer.
Rumpus: It makes me happy to, as a reader, to know that. You know the poem I just read about the receipt in the Robert Creeley book? It was real and true, like, Is this the proof that we are here? I see poetry as the proof we’re here, and I appreciate this honesty in your work.
Hernandez: Thank you. Like I said, this is my first book of poetry in ten years, so it feels good.
Rumpus: Even though you exercise different muscles in writing poetry, some of these poems do the same work your nonfiction does. “Unqualified Poem,” one of the longer ones, reminded me of All They Will Call You. Both have a voice that seems representative of a larger population. Do you ever feel the weight of writing for others, or making a space to tell their story?
Hernandez: I think it’s a privilege whenever someone trusts you with their story, and I try to never to lose sight of that. It’s one thing to write a poem, but the book was a huge, huge responsibility, particularly, because their story has continued on. I thought, “When I finish it, I’ll move on,” but their stories have continued to live with me for thirteen years now. It will continue to live with me until I can find every last one of those families. I made a vow to myself and to the families to do that. I just recently finished writing the second part in that book. Of course, writing a poem is much different. It’s another story, in another frame.
Rumpus: “Unqualified Poem,” feels like an ars poetica, because it examines the power and beauty of poetry, then talks about what a poem can do and can’t do. It reads: “Have you ever been kissed by a poem? It’s true—/ it cannot exist without you or I, but don’t mistake that / for caring. Because a poem has no heart. A child has a heart. / A poem is neither alive nor dead. It lives on white sheets, / or on the breath of you and I. But a poem itself / cannot breathe. It doesn’t qualify / as human.” There’s just so much here, in those words. I remember being engaged in this poem, but it didn’t let me rest. It was a call to remember children in detention centers.
Hernandez: Above everything else, people come first. That poem came about because I was living forty-five minutes from Tornillo Children’s Detention Facility, where these children were being held. I felt like I had been writing so much about past injustices toward immigrants and immigrant communities, and now, here are these children, forty-five minutes from my house. I thought, Am I just sitting here at home writing poetry? I had this sort of internal argument, or debate with myself. Sometimes a poem is necessary because it gets the message out far and wide to readers, but is it more necessary than me getting in my car right now? Should I utilize my resources to go down and witness what is actually happening? So, “Unqualified Poem” is really about that internal debate I had with myself.
So, there’s a catch-22 in “Unqualified Poem” about that. Sometimes poems do a lot of work, and we don’t give them much credit for the work they do. Other times, poems don’t do enough work, and we give them too much credit.
Rumpus: So, does “Unqualified Poem” do what it’s supposed to do?
Hernandez: With poetry, I can address the larger community, but it also motivated me to action. During the revision process, I realized I could go to the detention center to see what was really happening—and so, I did. I always have my children with me, so I took them out there, as witnesses. We talked about what that means to witness what was happening, what was taking place, how to use our voices, and why we must use them.
I went back there frequently with my children over the course of time, while the detention center was in place. We protested and tried to get it taken down. I even ended up befriending a US Border Patrol agent, and we submitted a proposal to him, a contract for Tornillo Children’s Detention Facility to teach poetry inside, with the children, to utilize it as a way of healing.
Our proposal actually started to move up in ranks, and we started to get approvals along the way. We were getting ready to do that when the most beautiful thing happened: the camp was shut down. That was so much better than us going in and teaching them poetry!
That experience made me think about my children. I mention this in a poem: Am I boxing my own children or caging them in ways that could potentially stop their growth? There was a lot there that I was unpacking, which is why it’s written in sections, a longer poem.
Rumpus: A line that keeps showing up in the book says, “I must remember this.” Sometimes it appears at the most beautiful times, sometimes during hard times. Especially in the dated poems—they have dates as titles—the phrase keeps appearing: “I must remember this.” which is another way of showing the snapshots of time. One poem speaks of your daughter: In one, you speak of your daughter: “These are the days of her shy guitar….” In another, you and your son are talking about The Diary of Anne Frank, and he says, “Why did she want a boyfriend, Dad? / Didn’t she know she could love anybody?” You keep saying, “I must remember this…” and it’s wonderful. Is this the universal cry of a parent’s heart?
Hernandez: Yes, and even in one of the other poems, I just come out and say that very thing, when Rumi and I have this unspoken agreement that we will never speak about the day we shared. “We don’t speak about the day / when all of this / will be nothing more / than a poem.”
Rumpus: One poem, entitled “Home” is specific to the interconnection of place and people: “Fresno is the inexhaustible nerve / in the twitching leg of a dog. / three hours after being smashed / beneath the retread wheel with a tomato truck on route to / a packing house that was raided / by the Feds just days before the harvest, / in which tractors were employed / to make do where the vacancy / of bodies could not as they ran out / into the oncoming traffic, of Highway 99 / arms up in dead heat, / shouting the names of their children / who were huddled nearby / in an elementary school, reciting / out loud The House That Jack Built.” That poem is one sentence, with a couple of commas in there, giving us the urgency of motion. There’s such interconnection here. Did you wanna talk about that?
Hernandez: Thank you for seeing how everything is interconnected. That theme is in the poems, throughout the whole collection—the interconnection of people and the spaces they inhabit. This poem actually came from a prompt that was given to me as an undergraduate. It first appeared in my book, Natural Takeover of Small Things, which came out ten years ago, in 2013, and those poems were actually written up to six years before that, while I was an undergraduate. I went to college when I was in my late thirties, after having children, and one of my teachers was the legendary Jack Collom, at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. He was a fantastic, creative, energetic, youthful spirit. He used to give us, as writing prompts, things like children’s nursery rhymes. He was just so magical! He could talk to adults in graduate courses the same exact way he would talk to a classroom of children, and he got his point across every single time. It was a real gift to learn from him.
Anyway, that was a prompt he gave us. He had us take look at the rhyme, “The House that Jack Built,” study the interconnectedness of it, and then write a poem with the same interconnectedness. So, I started it off with a pickup truck, and I wound it around everything in the Central Valley, which is where I’m from, originally. It’s all connected. I connected it back to the children in the classroom, reciting the nursery rhyme, “The House that Jack Built,” which was fun.
Rumpus: I think that it’s very easy to connect with your work, because my family is also from the Central Valley of California, and also worked in the fields. “Home” is an important poem about an important area, filled with dichotomies. The motion of crossing Highway 99, which separates the Mexican workers from where the wealthier residents live. It’s the strangest juxtaposition of privilege and labor.
Hernandez: And they’re both reliant on each other, as you know. I think a lot about the family dynamic of California—at times, it’s a toxic family dynamic—where we want to cut ourselves off from one relative or one cousin, or one uncle, or aunt, or brother. But no matter which part of this web we pool on, it’s going to shake the other side of the web where we are. I think of the Central Valley and the agricultural industry like that toxic family dynamic. Everyone is interconnected, but everyone denies it, or wants to deny it.
Rumpus: I really was touched by one poem called “Brown Christ” about a worker in the fields. “Yesterday I saw God / a Brown Christ hovering / above an onion field / over tilt plains of the San Joaquin— / frayed constellation of denim oxide work boot broken at the heel, / a curve knife gripped in his fingers, / low clouds, undulating hair of broken / lemongrass & rodeo lasso, / a fragrant beard of perejíl, / everything smelled as sulfur / & manure the silos wept / and
snowflakes tumbled tenderly /from the day moon, refracting / luminous congregations of aspen / with the music of truck dogs / howling over accordions / shimmering manna-light.” You talked about being lyrical, and at the same time being real. These images are heartbreaking and beautiful and lovely. How did these images come to you?
Hernandez: I grew up in the central San Joaquin Valley, and even in then, I moved around a lot as a young man. My parents were migrant farm workers when I was a young boy, so we moved a lot. We traveled a lot, but always returned to the Central Valley, that was our home base. Once I got old enough, I left and went to Colorado and lived there for ten years. I started my family there, and after that, I moved here to Texas, my ancestral home, where my mother’s side is all from. I found out that I have over two hundred relatives all around me, which is incredible. I realize, now, this is really where we’re from.
Even when I was moving around a lot, I always constantly wrote. Many times, I wrote out of nostalgia, out of memory, out of longing for the familiar. That poem, “Brown Christ” came to me when I was in Fort Lupton Colorado. I was driving in the snow, out into the plains of Colorado eastern side of Colorado. It was winter, and the snow stopped for a moment.
Before I had moved to Colorado, my grandfather was still alive. He was a farmer till the day he died. Before I moved to Colorado, asked me in Spanish, “Where are you moving to?” I said, “I’m going to Boulder, which is near…” He said, “Oh, I know where that’s at. You know, we used to live in Fort Lupton. We used to live there, and we used to live…” and he named all the cities where we used to live in Colorado, because they were migrant farm workers. He would always say to me, “Everywhere you go is home.” It was like he was joking. Later on, I found out that people attribute that quote to Thích Nhất Hạnh: Everywhere you go is home.
One day, in Fort Lupton, Colorado, there I was driving. I saw, in an onion field, some farm workers, in the fields, in the snow. The snow had stopped falling, and the farm workers were hunched over picking onions, I believe. All of a sudden, I just felt this memory of my grandfather talking to me, saying, Everywhere you go is home. I pulled over to the side of the road and began to write these things down: I saw God a Brown Christ hovering like…. I just started to feel and write. I was writing as I was feeling, and that’s what came out.
Rumpus: We can really feel that connection there, a blood connection with the field. Since we’re talking about interconnectedness, you have one of the longest acknowledgments section I’ve ever seen in a book of poetry…
Hernandez: There is one poet in this world who will beat my acknowledgements, because he taught me in that regard, and that’s the poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. He has the most! For me, the book’s not just about me—none of my books have ever been written alone, because I’m not on an island by myself writing them—they come from community. They are written in collaboration conversation, and breathing the same space with others, constantly. All those people I name are people who, in the last twenty-five years, have come into my life and shared with me in a way that’s been generous and influential.
It’s impossible to remember everyone, and acknowledge all of them, and I always feel bad because I forget people, but I try to remember influences and keep an ongoing list of names.
Rumpus: When people describe you as an activist writer or an important poet, what’s your reaction?
Hernandez: I appreciate this question, thank you. First and foremost, I appreciate the readers of my books. For me, the book is the after, the documentation of what I’ve experienced in my life. It’s not my life. Books are the ticket to the dialogue that happens in the community. Whether folks find good things in my work, or negative things, I’m happy either way. Hopefully, the book inspires people to have conversations with and among themselves. When I hear compliments, obviously it’s nice to hear, but I don’t put too much weight in them, because they come and go. As long as I am able to write and publish books, and have these conversations, that’s where the fruit and the nutrients are for me.
Rumpus: You talked about writing in snippets, or writing with the time you have.
Can you give a little bit of craft advice to someone who is, you know, restricted with time or with space? How would you write poetry? A few are working with fields.
Hernandez: That’s a very good question. Again, I want to say the poem is second, and living is first. I go back to that, because you have to be flexible. If you’re too rigid about your idea of what a poem should be, or what a poem should look like, then you’re going to miss a lot of opportunities. For me the key is flexibility. The heart of the poem is language, and we can squeeze a lot in one sentence, one thought, and that can be the poem if you allow it to be.
A conversation you have with somebody, or even a text could become a poem.
If you think of poetry in those terms, if we allow it to be a train of thought. Then we are constantly churning out poetry. We are constantly in a position to generate material, to generate poetry. At the end of the day, a poem is just a thought, and a thought is a little glimpse of light we have in our head about a situation or a subject. If we can capture that, in whatever way we can, it will be good.
I think sometimes we’re just too harsh, or too rigid with how we define poetry. I’ve started keeping ongoing texts to myself. I’ll do that, constantly, if I’m working somewhere.
If I’m walking from one meeting to another, I’ll text myself a sentence, and then hit enter. I let it let it sit there for a while, and then later on that day I text myself another, and sometimes they can become something. I can put them together and they’ll become one or sometimes two pieces of poetry. So, it’s not so much about, Do I have time to write poetry? It’s more about
How do I define poetry? Language to be playful, and finding ways to capture it? That’s it for me.
Author photo by Ana Saldana