Men Should Cry More
Born in Chicago and raised in the nearby suburb of Cicero, the poet Jacob Saenz is known for his unsparing explorations of boyhood, masculinity, race, family, and love. His debut collection, Throwing the Crown (2018), is a tough but sweet evocation of those themes. It won the 2018 American Poetry Review/Honickman First Book Prize. Gregory Pardlo, who chose the manuscript from more than 800 submissions, writes that Saenz’s collection “quietly defies the old narratives that portray young men in cities like Chicago as anonymous statistics and cautionary tales.” Saenz is also the recipient of the Ruth Lilly Poetry Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and a Letras Latinas Residency Fellowship. This summer, I corresponded with Saenz, who works as an acquisitions editor at Columbia College and as an associate editor of RHINO, a literary magazine based in Evanston, Illinois. We talked about the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s, Frito-Lay, and why “men should cry more.” The following exchange was condensed and edited.
Many poems in this book explore “having to navigate gang-infested neighborhoods as a boy who looked the part but wasn’t a gangbanger,” and the title refers to the hand signal that represents the Latin Kings. How did poetry enter your life, and how did it fit into your childhood and that milieu?
I grew up on 15th and 51st Avenues in Cicero during the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, there were a lot of gangs in and around our neighborhood. My block originally was claimed by Noble Knights, then later Latin Kings. The next block south belonged to Two Six Nation, a rival of the Latin Kings. Go this way, there were the Two Two Boys. Go that way, Latin Counts. As a teen, I had to be conscious of what colors I was wearing as I walked from block to block, which was difficult. My friends and I dressed according to the style of the times: baggy pants, extra-large shirts or jerseys, hairnets, etc. Because of the way we looked and sometimes acted, my friends and I were sometimes mistaken for gangbangers and harassed. My poem “This Never Happened” explores one such moment.
I started out writing very rhymey love poems in high school. Most were born out of unrequited love and/or crushes. At the end of my junior year, I took a poetry workshop at Columbia College Chicago, and that really helped open my eyes to what poetry can be. I discovered the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Sandra Cisneros, Sharon Olds, and Li-Young Lee. Reading their work helped give me a better sense of my own voice and the level of craft and commitment it takes to make a good poem. My family and friends from the old neighborhood have been very supportive of my work, which I’m thankful for because I feel at times I’m writing for them more than anyone else.
The Honickman Foundation, which sponsors the APR First Book Prize, believes that poetry has the power “to reflect and interpret reality, and, hence, to illuminate all that is true.” What is the role of truth in your work?
Though a lot of my work tends to veer toward the autobiographical, I don’t let facts get in the way of whatever truth I’m striving for, if that makes sense. When I’m writing a poem, I try to stay true to the beauty and spirit of whatever subject I happen to be writing about. The bachelor poems, for example, were born out of attending weddings in real life, but some of the facts are a little mixed up. What mattered more was exploring the truth of what it means to be a bachelor in these times, facts be damned.
In addition to publication, the Honickman Award gives the winner a $3,000 prize. What’s the best thing you did or plan to do with the money?
I think the best thing I did with the money was commission the art for the cover. Because Krista Franklin [the artist]. I plan to do some traveling to promote the book, so the money will partly fund those trips.
Speaking of the cover—a collage of birds and images of nature, Lotería cards, and photographs of young Latinx men—it’s gorgeous. How did the cover come about, and how much input did you have?
I feel so fortunate and grateful to have Krista Franklin’s work as the cover of the book! She was the first and, really, only person I had in mind when it came to the cover. When I initially asked her for cover art, she sent me some ready-made pieces of her work that, although beautiful, didn’t quite fit the themes of the book. After that, she asked for some old photos of me from the times referenced in the book, which she had read by then and had an idea of where to go. After a few weeks, she sent me the piece that is now the cover, and I was blown away by what she came up with. I still am.
In “Blue Line Incident,” you write about an encounter with a “coked-out, / crazed King w/ crooked teeth” who demands to know the speaker’s allegiances to the area gangs. To his own disappointment, the speaker replies with the flash of a gang sign and a hollow boast about his affiliations, then laments, “I was fishing for a life- / saver & he took, hooked him in / & had him say goodbye like we was boys / & shit when really I should’ve / gutted that fuck w/the tip / of my blue ballpoint.” The final lines seem to suggest a pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword comeuppance or maybe even pen-as-sword. To what extent do you see art and poetry as alternatives to violence and hopelessness?
I believe art and poetry offer more productive and healthier alternatives to violence and feelings of anger, hopelessness, and despair. “Blue Line Incident,” in particular, was born out of feelings of anger and rage at being mistaken for a gangbanger. At the time of the incident, I was enrolled in a high school poetry workshop. After the encounter with the gangbanger, I brought in a very raw poem full of explicative words in a big bold font. It was more of a rant than a poem, but it allowed me to channel the anger and aggression I felt toward the gangbanger in a healthier way than acting out violently. It wasn’t until years later that I revisited the poem and crafted it into what is now in the book.
As far as the pen-is-mightier-than-the-sword comeuppance, I didn’t originally intend that, but I’m happy that it’s read that way. When I wrote that ending, I was more thinking of a scene from the movie Casino where Joe Pesci’s character literally stabs somebody in the neck with a pen. It’s a gruesome, violent scene, but that’s what I envisioned myself doing to the gangbanger at the time. Instead, I wrote a poem.
Basketball—as a sport but also as a locus of race and class concerns and as metaphorical possibilities—seems important to both your life and your poems, particularly “Shootaround,” “Latin Immortal Gangstas,” and “Holding Court.” What does the game mean to you, both personally and as a fan, and how does it impact your creative work?
Basketball provides a great joy and comfort to my life. I love playing it, watching it, reading about it. It’s my favorite type of exercise, and I think the game provides a great way to build on one’s individual skill in a team setting. I’m not sure how it impacts my writing other than I occasionally have a basketball poem. As a fan, I was absolutely spoiled growing up watching the Chicago Bulls of the 1990s win six championships. It made me think that was the norm. More than 20 years later, the Bulls have not been back to the finals, but they’re still my team, and I’m looking forward to seeing how their young core develops.
Masculinity receives a great deal of critical attention in these pages. How did you settle on that theme?
Considering that I identify as a cis male, the theme of masculinity is one I constantly explore and will continue to explore in my writing. I think there are too many problematic aspects of masculinity to list here, and I don’t think I’m smart enough to remedy them all. As a cis male, one thing I will say is that it’s important to recognize the privilege I have as a man in relation to other people. Even as a person of color, I still have privileges that are not afforded to women or non-binary people, which is made even more complex when those people are of color or queer or disabled. I am aware of and sensitive to that and try to live my life respecting how other people live and checking my masculine privilege when needed. Also, as someone who is quick to cry, I think men should cry more and welcome those feelings that arouse tears.
Bachelorhood is another running theme, one you handle with humor but also with genuine pathos, as in “The Bachelor Watches ‘The Bachelor.’” You write, “The show ends & I rise from the couch / & walk into the kitchen. On bended knee, / I reach for a bottle of beer deep / in the back of the fridge, pop the top / like a question & take a swig, cold / & crisp once it hits my full lips.” At a reading you gave in Chicago in July, you made a distinction between being a bachelor (yourself) and a confirmed bachelor (one of your brothers). How do you define bachelorhood, and how do you feel about it as a state of being?
I think the poems in the book do a better a job of defining and exploring what bachelorhood is than I could right here. The simplest definition is someone who is unmarried, and I currently fit that definition. However, I do have a special someone in my life, and we are living together. But because we’re not married, I guess that still makes me a bachelor (and her, a bachelorette). Ultimately, I feel good about where I am as a bachelor and being in a loving, caring relationship with my partner.
The term confirmed bachelor is a euphemism for gay. In the poem “The Bachelor Attends a Gay Wedding,” I wanted to reference that term and explore the differences between the speaker as a bachelor and his brother as a confirmed one.
CantoMundo is a national poetry workshop dedicated to supporting and developing Latinx poets and poetry. How did you become involved with the group, and what did it do for your work and your sense of community?
I became a CantoMundo fellow in 2013, but I didn’t actually “graduate” as is typical of most fellows. I feel some shame about that. Still, I’m grateful for the opportunity to have worked alongside other great Latinx poets and learned how they approach writing under the umbrella of Latinx. I think organizations such as CantoMundo are important to help establish a community of other Latinx writers who are actively working with or against being identified as Latinx writers. I struggle oftentimes about what it means to self-identify as a Latinx writer who does not speak Spanish well or who feels disconnected, in some ways, from my Mexican roots. When I attended CantoMundo, I learned that I wasn’t alone with that feeling or struggle, and what connected us more was the writing and the way we explored those issues in our work.
For years, you’ve been an editor at RHINO magazine. What has that publication meant to you?
Being part of the RHINO crash (as a group of rhinos is called) has been very meaningful to me. I love the work we do, not only producing a lovely, annual print journal but also hosting monthly workshops and readings. As an associate editor, I read and vote on poems I feel should be included in our journal. Reading submissions has helped me keep up with all the good work my peers are currently producing, which in turn affects the way I think about writing. I’ve developed real friendships and connections with my fellow editors, so that it feels like family. I’m thankful to be a part of the crash.
Gregory Pardlo makes an extended comparison between your work and that of Gwendolyn Brooks. Was she an influence on your writing, and who else influenced this book? What contemporary poets are you most excited about reading these days?
I consider it high praise to be mentioned in the same sentence as Gwendolyn Brooks! I am a fan of her work, but I’m not sure she’s a direct influence on my work as much as others. Beyond her most popular poems I read back in school, she’s someone whose work I’ve been reading more and more in recent years, especially her book Blacks. More direct influences on the book would be Yusef Komunyakaa (especially Magic City), Sandra Cisneros, and Ed Roberson, among others.
I just read Terrence Hayes’s American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin and loved it! I’m excited to read new books by Fatimah Asghar, José Guadalupe Olivarez, David Welch, and Emily Jungmin Yoon.
Food imagery appears throughout the poems: “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos,” “tacos de corazon,” “chorizo & eggs sizzling in the pan,” “scoops of vanilla ice cream,” and “chips and salsa” to name just a few. Do you have a favorite food or a recipe that you consider a go-to or would like to share?
I’m not much of a cook, so I don’t have many recipes to share. I make salsa often, which means I’m constantly snacking on chips and salsa. One of my favorite simple meals is avocado tacos doused in my own salsa. Of course, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and Takis are some of my favorite snacks too. I’m hoping Frito-Lay will read this interview/my book and show some love (AKA money) for the publicity.
You use ampersands instead of writing out the word and in your poems—how come?
I stole that from one of my favorite poets, Yusef Komunyakaa. Sometimes I like to steal things.
Kathleen Rooney is a founding editor of Rose Metal Press, a publisher of literary work in hybrid genres, and a founding member of Poems While You Wait, a team of poets and their typewriters who compose commissioned poetry on demand. She teaches English and creative writing at DePaul University and is...