Q and A: Javier O. Huerta

My main area of interest is bad poetry - Latinidad - April 2008

By Marcela Landres
Published on LatinoLA: April 26, 2008

Q and A: Javier O. Huerta

While publishing a collection of poetry is an accomplishment in and of itself, publishing a bilingual book of poems in the U.S. is a feat. Javier Huerta did just that.

Javier O. Huerta is the author of "Some Clarifications y otros poemas" (Arte Publico 2007), which won the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize from UC Irvine. A native of Nuevo Laredo, Tamualipas, Mexico, he currently lives in Oakland, California and studies bad poetry as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. Read his blog at http://www.unitedstatesean.blogspot.com/*

Q: Which authors or books inspired you to become a writer, and why?

A: I begin with the movies of Los Hermanos Almada. A movie like "La Banda del Carro Rojo" greatly influenced my first creative experiences.

These films focus on the lives of narcotraficantes and portray them as sympathetic characters that are only doing what is necessary to survive in a corrupt world. The soundtracks include narcocorridos, and usually the title song-for example, "La Banda del Carro Rojo" by Los Tigres del Norte-play as the credits run at the end of the movie. When I was yet a mocoso, my cousins, brother, and I played narcotraficantes-and-federales (a version of cops and robbers, I suppose), and of course the game ended when the narcotraficantes fell in a heroic tragic death. Then as we lay on the ground, I composed corridos that narrated the events of our role-play.

The figure of my father haunts these memories of play. My father, who perhaps does not understand the role of fiction and lives as a real life narcotraficante. My father, who lives his life dreaming that one day he will be infamous enough for someone to compose a narcocorrido about his life and (we fear) his death.

Skip ahead two and a half decades. After four years in the U.S. Navy and one year at Houston Community College, I've finally made it to the University. I enroll in a creative writing class taught by Christopher Bakken. He is a good teacher and encourages my writing. I don't know exactly when I encounter John Keats for the first time, but my life will be divided into "Before Keats" and "After Keats". The "why" of this influence is something I am still researching.

Q: What is the story behind "Some Clarifications y otros poemas"?

A: "Some Clarifications y otros poemas" is a product of my three years in the Bilingual Creative Writing Program at the University of Texas at El Paso. I submitted an earlier version as my MFA thesis. The collection really has no unifying theme. I have offered many explanations for its cohesion.

In the critical introduction I had to write as part of my MFA thesis, I argue that what unifies the collection is a focus on the exploration of metaphor, an exploration that leads the poems to qualify and invert the tenor-vehicle relation of their metaphors. I then argue in my "Advertisement" that "air" is the unifying principle of the collection; this is to place the focus on the blasphemous elegy for those who died by asphyxiation in a tractor-trailer on May 14, 2003. Only recently have I realized that the force behind the collection is a poetics of mispronunciation, of mistranslation, of misrecognition, of misunderstanding, of misreading. That is to say, I created the collection as a form of mispoetics.

Ben Saenz, one of my mentors at UTEP, posed the pragmatic question of publication at my MFA thesis defense. Publication of course is difficult for any poet. I added to this difficulty by making my book bilingual, Spanish/English. I felt comfortable with my decision to write Spanish poems because I understood not only the tradition of Chicano poetry but also the history of its publication. When I visited the website for the Chicano/Latino Literary Prize, the list of past winners utterly impressed me. I knew I had one shot, so I had to make it count. That November the talented Valerie Martinez selected my manuscript as the winner. Nicolas Kanellos of Arte Publico Press agreed to publish my book, and on September 30, 2007-my book's publication date-I read poems in Spanish and English to an audience of family and friends in Houston, Texas as part of the Latino Book Festival. I guess I want to acknowledge that the publication of my book was only possible because of the dedication and hard work by the Spanish and Portuguese Department at UC Irvine and Dr.Kanellos.rnrn* You are currently working on your doctorate in English at the University of California, Berkeley.

Q: Are your studies shaping or changing your writing, and if so how?

A: My main area of interest is bad poetry. I believe people have ignored bad poetry for too long, and I want to correct this oversight. Take Keats for example: by reducing him to the Great Odes, critics tend to make of Keats an awfully serious boy. "He was in a race against time to write his masterpieces," so the narrative goes. What is excised is a middle section of four poems that divides the sequence of odes in Keats's last volume.

These middle poems-I call them his "Robin Hood" poems-receive no critical attention because they are "bad poems." The problem is that when "Ode to Melancholy" is read to an audience it is received with "oh" and/or "ah," with an acknowledgement that what we have just heard must be a beautiful classic while when "Robin Hood" is read it is received with smiles, with laughter, with stomping of the feet. We admire the odes; we enjoy the Robin Hood poems. In the end, I believe that even the Great Odes have an aspect of bad poetry in them, but that our aesthetic education has taught us to ignore that which is not beautiful.

This insight of the role of bad poetry first came to me as I was considering my own poetry. I realized that the reason my poems are so good is because they are so bad. So yes, my writing shapes my criticism, and my criticism shapes my writing. Thus, I am currently at work on a collection of bad poems called "Hideous Sonnets."

Q: What is your writing ritual?

A: I am actually rather undisciplined when it comes to my writing process. I have no ritual and believe not in inspiration. Deadlines help me write. I usually spend all night writing. This could be because that's when I'm the most creative or because I procrastinated too long and then need to make up time. I write on a hand-me-down laptop. All of this contributes, I believe, to the quality of badness in my work.

Q: Other than honing their craft, what advice would you give to Latino writers looking to land a book deal?

A: First, let me narrow down the audience to Latino poets because I really don't know much about getting an agent and publishing a novel. Let me further narrow down the audience to Latino poets who write entirely or partly in Spanish or Spanglish. You have more opportunities for publication than you think. The usual path to publishing a poetry book is through contests. But only one prize that I know of accepts Spanish or bilingual manuscripts: UC Irvine's CLLP. Even the recently established Andres Montoya Poetry Prize requires manuscripts to be in English. Still, I find it hard to believe that it was easier for poets of an earlier generation to publish their experimental, bilingual work than it is for us. No, we should recognize that Jose Montoya, alurista, Lalo Delgado, Pat Mora, Gloria Anzaldua, Evangelina Vigil-Pi??on and many others struggled to create a space in which bilingual work could be not only published but also read and discussed. So the first step is to research those institutions (presses and journals) that accept Spanish and bilingual submissions. So the second step is to submit as much and as often as possible. Publishers aren't going to find you, no matter how good your poems are. So the third step is to learn that rejection is just part of the process. So the fourth step is to read Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet." So the fifth step is to memorize "El Louie." So the sixth step is to write a poem in your limited French.

So the seventh step is to organize your manuscript and have a nonpoet comment on it. So the eighth step is to have your grandmother edit your Spanish poems. So the ninth step is to send your manuscript to me at johuerta@berkeley.edu. So the tenth step is to understand that you've never published before. So the eleventh step is to not argue with your publisher once you have a publisher. So the twelfth step is to consider publishing beyond the borders of the United States of America. So the thirteenth step is remaining patient while it takes your publisher two years to publish your book. So the fourteenth step is staying beautiful.

About Marcela Landres:
Marcela Landres is an Editorial Consultant who specializes in helping Latinos get published. She was formerly an editor at Simon & Schuster and has acted as a judge for the Beyond Margins Award/PEN. For more info visit http://www.marcelalandres.com/.

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