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A Q&A With Poet Jesús Castillo
Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan of McSweeney’s have conducted a “McSweeney’s Poetry Series Q&A” with Jesús Castillo about his new collection, Remains, the tenth collection in the series. Nice: “I came across Jack Spicer’s lectures when I was about half way through writing Remains. I like his description of the serial poem as a poem that could virtually go on forever, or until the poet dies or gets sick of writing the poem.” We like how this fellow thinks:
McSWEENEY’S: The main aim of poetry is to… what?
CASTILLO: Incite people to life, to use Nietzsche’s phrase. Poetry can do this in many ways: by making you see life as beautiful, or by simply making you see life more sharply (which may or may not be the same thing as beautiful); by waking you up to the strangeness, and even the fascinating ugliness, of the world; by reconciling you with your mortality; by making you feel comfortable in your solitude so that you come to cherish it and see it as precious rather than as something negative; by refocusing your mind when it has become too cluttered. All the arts can do these things, of course, though poetry is especially good at sustaining us in our solitude. It focuses you because it uses as its medium a very concentrated form of language, so it requires a very concentrated form of reading. You must inhabit yourself firmly to read a poem well. Good poetry exercises your thinking as powerfully as good philosophy does, except it uses not traditional logic to think but the logic of metaphor, which is more explosive although less precise, since it moves by leaping, flying, and teleporting, rather than by traveling more methodically on foot. This is how poetry achieves its “salutary aim,” as Milosz put it: by insisting that we be focused and present in our minds when we read it. This is also, however, another reason why it’s not always good to be reading poetry. Too much awareness and sensitivity can get heavy, even when they’re coated in musical language that leans (in general) toward seeing life as beautiful. We need rest and escape also, to stay healthy.
McSWEENEY’S: If you could give your writer-self three years ago some advice, what would you say?
CASTILLO: I don’t think I’d give myself from three years ago any writing advice. At that time, I had just finished Remains, and was essentially resting from writing, letting the manuscript sit untouched for a few months before starting the editing process. When I’d been writing Remains, I had arrived, without knowing it, at a more or less ideal state in my writing practice. I had found a task that I was excited by and believed in, and I worked at it more or less constantly, without worrying about the final product or about publication. I was happy simply to work, to have a task into which I could pour all of my creative energy and that allowed me to make full use of what writing abilities I had mastered up until then. I took joy in writing each line. Everything I read went into my writing, and everything I saw or experienced somehow or another went into my writing. I drew images, lines, and ideas from every event, considered every situation as potentially useful and instructive. I was doing this pretty much all the time. If I were to give advice to any writer, including myself today, it’d be this: find a task through which you can exert yourself fully, take pleasure in crafting each building block, and worry as little as possible about all the other things people often associate with writing (publication, competition, etc.).
They also discuss the MFA at Iowa, writing in Spanish, connections to Mexico, reading outside of poetry, “plainspoken” style, and more at McSweeney’s.