Dear Readers and Poets,
I am honored to share this Q&A with the great poet Mauricio Kilwein Guevara. Born in Belencito, Colombia and raised in Pittsburgh, Mauricio is a man made by several cultures who also stands outside of culture. While his “poems often use overlapping voices and languages to explore the tensions and simultaneities that complicate the lives of immigrants in mid-America”
(Poetry Foundation), his poetry also communicates the deep and sweet melancholy of spending an existence in the present moment. With several degrees and a PhD under his belt, his brilliance is just as apparent as his immensely kind heart, and both are easy to see if you’ve ever been lucky enough to be a student in his class. He was my professor for a workshop and before class I often requested if he’d read one of his poems to us, since I found his delivery so immensely unique and profound. He is the author of four books of poetry, at least one play, as well as co-writer and actor in a film (links below the interview).
How do you feel about solitary vs. collaborative writing?
I’m thinking you have in mind here, when you mention collaborative writing, a situation where two or more people work out an arrangement where they collectively join in the process of making some sort of word artifact (a poem, a script, a song, etc.). I think this can be a very fruitful enterprise based on the quality of the collaborating artists, the conditions shaping their work, and the contexts for their productions.
I have done this sort of work, for example, when, in 2002, a group of artists from Indiana University of Pennsylvania helped translate my third collection, Autobiography of So-and-so, into a black-box theatre production that included performed written texts, input from a Derridean dramaturge, acting, set design, directing, lighting, sound, textile arts as properties, a cellist, guitarists, and singers. There were the stresses people face in bringing off any theatrical performance, but what I remember most is how much freaking fun it was to solve technical and artistic challenges leading up to the performances. The shows were sold out, we had to turn folks away each night, and the audience members reported that wonderful high I associate with quality collaborative art.
As far as solitary writing goes, this is probably how I have worked the most throughout my career. But if I can contradict myself, let me say that I’m fundamentally suspicious of the idea that there is such thing as “solitary writing.” Every time I reach to pick up a word and place it somewhere, I’m heavily aware that each signifier brings with it complex etymologies. It’s as though, looked at under the powerful microscope of history, each word is a riot or reformation. In fact, language is an immense plowed field seeded with bones and regularly fed with blood and stubborn hope. Every human being who has ever lived has farmed there.
Also, my wife Janet Jennerjohn and my friend George Makana Clark, to name only two of many, have looked at drafts of my writing for years and given me outstanding ideas on how to make the texts better in revision. Are they not collaborators?
What does the term “poetic process” mean to you?
Not much. Talking about poetic process brings me about the same level of joy as hearing a dental hygienist discuss which pick is better for ecru plaque or which floss is propitious for dislodging particles of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Hungry for the truth of process? I’d advise that you to return to Beckett: “All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Do you feel it still is (or ever has) been important to memorize poems?
To memorize a poem permanently changes your cognitive and somatic circuitry in ways that reading alone simply can not. The proof is in the idiom: We say we know a memorized poem “by heart.” My father, who was a remarkably intelligent man for most of his life, now has dementia. When he is alone in a room, he now softly argues with a village of ghosts I cannot hear. But still, if you ask him to recite a poem by Frost, he can perform for you without error and with great empathy. And, by the way, we use our whole body to remember a poem or song: our hands, the sway of our legs, our neck and shoulders. There is something deeply ontological about knowing a poem by heart.
Do you ever get sick of poetry?
I’m much more likely to get sick of poets than real poems. Many poets are way too self-involved. They can leave me in a funk about human beings and, by association, poetry.
But then a funny thing happens. My funk can go away if I’m surprised by hearing real poetry in the world. For example, a little boy was crouching one day beside my garbage can. His eyes were intently scanning his small world. When he saw me, he said: “I seen a fwy,” pausing, “but the fwy fwied away.”
Do you have any advice to veterans of poetry?
Read outside yourself and your circle. Try to become a little more empathic every day. Become multilingual. Read across time and space. Also, flossing never hurt.
In your mind, are technology and poetry in bed together or still in an awkward flirting phase?
Isn’t poetry a technology for remembering to love the world?
Check out these other great links:
Doña Josefina Counsels Doña Concepción Before Entering Sears - a Moving Poem
Poems of the River Spirit (1996)
Autobiography of So-and-so (2001)