The Unsung Passion of Ray Gonzalez
Each month we feature a guest post from a contributor to Poetry’s current issue. Roy G. Guzmán’s poems, all called “Queerodactyl,” appear in the November 2017 issue. Previous posts in this series can be found on the Editors’ Blog.
Gonzalez in the Classroom
In 2011, I went back to Miami with a Master’s degree in hand, almost against my will—Miami, a place that had witnessed my tempestuous teenage years. I was sick; I had been in and out of the hospital for almost a month in New Hampshire, where I had no car to get around.
In Miami, I started working as an adjunct instructor. With less than a week to prepare my syllabi, I was overwhelmed with the thought of teaching four courses, all in composition, the first level focused on current events, the second on poetry and short stories, my training a sink-or-swim situation. That August I entered a classroom of thirty-two students. Faces that reflected different versions of mine. The curls on their heads like mine. The brownness of their skins like a rich fluid extended to my skin. Their dark eyes my eyes. Confusion, excitement, and Spanglish made up the physics with which the class operated.
One teaching challenge I’ve heard again and again is finding material suitable for the students you’ll be encountering. My first semester, I thought that Philip Roth’s The Human Stain would spark discussions about race, class, identity, power, gender, and trauma in my classes of mostly Latinx students: first-generation Americans or immigrants themselves. I had not foreseen running into a crowd divorced almost entirely from U.S. history, equipped with complex vocabularies that could address strife in Venezuela, accessibility in Cuba, or surviving ghettoes, projects, and trailer parks in the forgotten neighborhoods of America.
It was in this Babel of polyphonic narratives and currencies that I found Ray Gonzalez’s poem “Praise the Tortilla, Praise Menudo, Praise Chorizo,” in your typical English anthology attempting to subvert the canon with a dozen poems by writers of color. The closest lines I’d read to anything like Gonzalez’s had come from writers such as Sandra Cisneros, Gabriel García Márquez, Isabel Allende, and Junot Díaz—that is, nowhere else but in fiction. In his poem, Gonzalez praised ingredients, flavors, textures, smells, and sounds I grew up hearing but hardly seeing on the page. He began:
I praise the tortilla in honor of El Panzon,who hit me in school every day and made me seehow the bruises on my arms looked likethe brown clouds on my mother’s tortillas.
Bullying. Intimacy. Culture. Heritage. Food. Ritual. Family. Gonzalez praised the menudo (tripe soup) “as visionary food,” reflecting on the broth:
the red caldo [that] smears across our notebookslike a vision we have not had in years,our lives going down like the empty bowlof menudo exploding in our stomachswith the chili piquin of our poetic dreams.
Here was a celebration of people like me, of the poetry we put in our bodies, of the stories, people, and language slipping away from us. The speaker of the poem becomes Chorizo Warrior, La Familia Detective, Memory Weaver, Brown Possibility. In “Praise the Tortilla, Praise Menudo, Praise Chorizo” I continue to hear Anne Sexton’s “In Celebration of My Uterus,” Ross Gay’s “Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude,” Martín Espada’s “Alabanza: In Praise of Local 100,” and Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It is a poem that charts new horizons, giving poets like me a lexicon fleshed out with our tongues.
In his work, Gonzalez has always maintained an effective way of capturing the different angles of our Latinx experiences. In “Ascension Day,” for instance, from The Religion of Hands (2005)—a collection of prose poems and flash fictions, of which Gonzalez is without a doubt a master—he remarks,
I carried a photo of La Virgen de Guadalupe before she became famous. I can prove it by kneeling and never getting up again, this posture something to believe in while you adjust your camera lens. Don’t tell me not to move, be still, or smile. I know how to be captured without a word.
Gonzalez’s contributions in this poem comment on cultural appropriation, the gaze of tourism, and the symptoms of colonization that run through the minutiae of our lives. As brown folk, we are conditioned to prove our pasts, our citizenship, and our championing of capitalism. From this same collection, another poem, “Cilantro Man,” which he dedicates to his longtime friend, former poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera, must be reprinted here:
He wants to smell like his grandmother’s hands, so he carves a song out of cement he finds on the porch, fading letters from lost graffiti telling him to drop the cement and pull roses from the garden instead. His blood fingers lead him into the house where his lover waits for him, her purple dress sliced in half, his medal-lion from the war glowing between her breasts. He wants to be careful, carry the flag, but she twists like the river he crossed when he ran out of ideas, the cilantro in her darkness the aroma from a memory he used to have. He takes his time when she punches the wall, mouths the many births of cilantro into his knees, sends him reeling across the room so she can leave without having to confess. He wants to rise like a boy, but stands up as a man, his smile the arrow the black puma falls upon when it climbs over the wall in the jungle to be greeted by a circle of exhausted, sleeping men.
Through Gonzalez’s poetry I’ve discovered the various syntaxes that run through my own linguistic DNA. Through him I’ve discovered how to deploy my metaphors and when to reveal my silences (“Beware the silence stronger than the voice,” he writes in “Beware the Silence,” included in Human Crying Daisies (2003)). Like his personality—measured, as if ticking like a clock, and with an appetite for tactful wit—Gonzalez’s poem-tellers can be shy but, when allowed to speak, can verbalize truths with the swiftness of a lizard. In “What Lesson?” for instance, the speaker asks, “What were the questions our mothers asked? Who did they make love to before our fathers arrived with newspapers and torn wills and deeds?” Gonzalez has the associative skill and patience of James Wright, and that gift of surprise you find in Russell Edson’s best work. He knows when to walk into a poem and when to walk away, leaving everything around haunted.
Gonzalez’s Echoes in Los Barrios
Though he has lived in many places and taught in the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Minnesota–Minneapolis since 1996, Ray Gonzalez shows how tendrils of our birthplaces (in his case, El Paso, Texas) emanate from our work. In his essay “The Border Is Open,” Gonzalez reflects, “home is comfort and uneasiness … the generator of longing”:
I do not believe in the loss of home. An earthquake or other natural disaster can wipe out the town of our origins and it will still be there. Our private sounds and memories tell us where home lies eternally. Navajo people believe sacred ground must be earned. You are not born into a family and automatically given a place in the world. You must earn it. As you pay for it, the joys and sorrows that grow on sacred ground are identified for you as the citizens of your place on earth. You can celebrate or mourn the area where you grew up, with its stage of autobiographical failures and triumphs, but you have earned them and can’t abandon them completely. The Navajos say it comes down to belief. The things you believe in are the factors that will protect or diminish your origins and your home.
With the help of Ray Gonzalez, I’ve been able to claim a home anywhere, with the dexterity and courage of Gary Soto, Gloria E. Anzaldúa, and lots of Latinx poets writing with and through what they have inherited. I’ve asked a few writers how Gonzalez has influenced them. Poets Eduardo C. Corral and Rigoberto González, for instance, remark on Ray Gonzalez’s contributions:
Ray Gonzalez was one of the first Latino anthologists illuminating the contemporary Latinx literary landscape. He was performing two critical tasks in the process: highlighting the range of voices shaping Latinx identities and politics, and expanding the Latinx canon, tradition, and history in ways that were being ignored by the mainstream New York presses. By showing us that we had a past and present, he was guiding us toward an exciting and certain future. We made our first important literary discoveries reading such anthologies as After Aztlan: Latino Poetry in the Nineties (1992) and Mirrors Beneath the Earth: Short Fiction by Chicano Writers (1995). His versatility as an editor, writer, and critic, made him one of our most influential role models, and we also want to express our eternal gratitude for his hand in creating the Camino del Sol Latino Literary Series with the University of Arizona Press, which continues to build on Ray’s vision as a literary activist.
Poet Francisco Aragón says:
For many Latinx writers, Ray Gonzalez has modeled what it means to be a consequential literary citizen for the long haul—as a poet, essayist, memoirist, anthologist, and editor. In more recent years, it seems, his own creative energies have focused on renewing the genre of the prose poem. But for me, personally, when I set out to edit The Wind Shifts well over ten years ago, Ray was my principal guide: his edited volumes of the nineties, above all After Aztlan: Latino Poetry of the Nineties, and Touching the Fire: Fifteen Poets of Today’s Latino Renaissance were and are touchstones for me. He’s also been a model for being relentless—where creating and carving new spaces for Latinx poets and writers is concerned. We’re all indebted to him.
Poet Alex Lemon says:
I will forever be grateful for Ray’s presence in my life. His teaching, mentorship, and writing have shaped me in deep and everlasting ways. Ray’s panoramic creativity and intense appreciation of language’s manifold possibilities continue to animate my daily work. Although I’ll never be able to repay Ray, I endeavor every day to pass on these gifts he’s given me to the writers I’m lucky to work with. He’s a visionary artist and has always been a tireless advocate for diverse literatures and literary voices. His quiet joy and hilarity—his wild-ass sacredness—has become a part of who I am and who I want to be.
The echoes come back bearing fruit.
A Poet’s Poet
In “One El Paso, Two El Paso,” from his Beautiful Wall (2015), Gonzalez begins:
Awake in the desert to the sound of calling.Must be the mountain, I thought.The violent border, I assumed, though the boundaryline between the living and the dead was erased years ago.
The speaker wakes up again and again to the horror he’s inherited. The border is the archetypal punisher. The ghosts continue to reappear, their work unfinished. In this poem, the violence perpetrated against our bodies is an eternal recurrence. The speaker must take note of this. Too much can be said about our obsessions.
Last year, before winning a Minnesota Book Award for Beautiful Wall, Gonzalez casually mentioned to me that it was his best work. I remember saying, That’s what we say every time we write something new. But he remained obstinate: It was his best. After the win, I expected excitement for his legacy to ensue. Revivified interest in his work. But the reviews hardly ever came. One of the chirpers, Publishers Weekly, commented on Gonzalez’s “layered dynamics” and his being “a writer of place,” the latter an observation that could mean a poet is too niche to appeal to readers beyond that region.
Our literary idols often reside in unread tunnels, like a form of contraband, and I believe Latinx poets continue to struggle to find places that will welcome their work. There was a time, for example, when I would tell poets about my fascination with Elizabeth Bishop and they would give me a puzzled look. The same has occurred to me when I mention Ray Gonzalez. The thing is, I see Gonzalez’s direct and indirect influence everywhere: in the works of Javier Zamora, Erika L. Sánchez, and Jennifer Givhan. I find him in the words of Natalie Scenters-Zapico, Joseph Rios, Anaïs Deal-Márquez, and Vanessa Angélica Villarreal. I trace his colors in the poems of Ada Limón, David Tomas Martinez, Eloisa Amezcua, and Michael Torres. I sense him in the language of Natalie Diaz, Alexandra Lytton Regalado, Ariel Francisco, and Steven Alvarez. I see his shadow in the metaphors of Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, Joe Jimenez, Maya Chinchilla, and David Campos. And these are just a few names.
Perhaps we never stop writing because we don’t want to be reminded of our mortalities. Or maybe we write precisely because we must deal with our mortalities. I empathize with the Antigones of the world. Despite his broad impact, Ray Gonzalez’s work remains criminally underrated. My hope is that people spend more time with it. I want to see Gonzalez’s words tweeted. I want to read poems written after Gonzalez’s poems. We live in a culture obsessed with the future. We keep asking, What’s going to get published? and put little weight on what we missed out on from yesterday. How we invoke the poems of our teachers will instruct future writers on how to respond to our poems. So go ahead: open that collection of poems. Which Gonzalez line will be your favorite?
Roy G. Guzmán was born in Honduras and raised in Miami. His work has been featured in Kenyon Review, Verse of April, and The Best American Poetry blog. Guzmán has earned degrees from Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, and the Honors College at Miami Dade College. He is the...