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September 21, 2022

To balance rage with tenderness: A conversation with poet Tomás Q. Morín

An imagined future can plant our present with the seeds of hope, courage, and faith, says Morín

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A writer whose poems dissect and then reimagine, Tomás Q. Morín has a gift for evoking what ails and heals us. Morin’s third book of poems, “Machete,” was published by Penguin Random House this fall.

Morín is the author of two previous collections: “Patient Zero” (Copper Canyon, 2017) and “A Larger Country” (American Poetry Review/Copper Canyon, 2012), winner of the APR/Honickman Prize, and runner-up for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. He has translated Pablo Neruda’s visionary “The Heights of Macchu Picchu,” as well as Luisa Pardo and Gabino Rodriguez’s libretto for “Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance,” an opera by Graham Reynolds.

He teaches at Rice University and in the low-residency writing program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Morín lives in Houston with his family.

After reading “Machete” all in one sitting on my pandemic porch swing, I corresponded with the author about his representations of art, caretaking, critique, and renewal.

Dorothy Meiburg Weller: Let’s begin at the end: the final poem, “Machete,” sets up a contrast between the act of looking at art, as represented by an allusion to Rilke’s famous charge to readers that “you must change your life,” and the act of eating, as represented by a meal of “spare ribs” to which you invite the readers of the poem. Do you think that the desire of readers and writers of poetry to look at art and reflect on their lives has a tendency to disconnect them from the more visceral reality of that life?



Tomás Q. Morin: I don’t think spending time with art is what can disconnect us from the visceral parts of life; rather, it’s forgetting that the art was made by one of those “wild beasts” with the glistening fur Rilke mentions in “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” And if the art is great enough, then it, too, like the torso, can become a wild beast. The Goya painting that appears in my poem “A Pile of Fish” is just such a beast. See it in person and that painting will watch you. Food is holy and sharing it reveals how much we have in common with each other. It’s no accident Jim Crow was obsessed with keeping people from eating together.

 

DMW: Poems like “Flea Circus” and “Sartana and Machete in Outer Space” plunge readers into a narration of reality that feels like science fiction in tone and motifs, even as the poems’ themes (like all good science fiction) reflect the struggles of our own time. I hadn’t seen the Machete movies before reading your poem, so in first encountering the text, I read it as taking place in a totally original invented scenario, maybe even a fantastical autobiography.

How important are the genres of science fiction and fantasy to you as a writer, reader (and I guess moviegoer)? What occasions or kinds of thinking prompt you to bring these genres into your work as a poet?

TQM: Like most kids, I was a fan of fables. Before we had sci-fi sections in bookstores, old tales and fables contained worlds like our own, even as they were a few degrees removed by the presence of fantastic creatures. “Animal Farm” is probably the first book that showed me a way to talk about our human struggles in a new way. Through his work Philip K. Dick taught me how the future is a blank canvas onto which we can paint those struggles in a different way. There’s times when violence and racism make the present moment feel absolutely unbearable. Fantasy and science fiction give my imagination somewhere to go where I can at least pretend to have more control.

DMW: I loved how parenting exists at the very center of your book, literalized in the eleven-page poem “Two Dolphins.” Throughout Machete, parenthood is not a peripheral experience, but one around which everything else revolves, more obviously at some moments than others. You poignantly represent how the stuff of your son’s room acquires meaning beyond its function (way to name check Twilight Turtle). Since my son was six months old in March 2020 when lockdown began, I felt I’d lived your account, in “Vallejo,” of the awkward choreography of sidewalk passings with a stroller in those months when we rarely left our neighborhood.

Then and since, I have often marveled at how people, parents and otherwise, manage to make meaning in these little worlds (neighborhoods, friends’ houses, babies’ rooms) to which we retreat or are confined — in the larger context of an era that so often feels like the “stale, heartsick night” that the crowd inhabits at the end of “Flea Circus.” Did you envision a dialogue between themes of caretaking and critique, or even mourning, as you assembled the poems in “Machete”?

TQM: Caretaking and critique are absolutely in dialogue. In a way, critique is part of caretaking. Teaching the little ones how to assign value to things and actions is care. After all, we feel a certain way about what matters to us. Silence and the absence of feeling are also judgments. As for mourning, this country has been in mourning for well over 200 years. How is any poem written by a U.S. writer not an elegy, either explicitly or implicitly? The emperor doesn’t want to wear his clothes because he stained them with blood. I try to balance my rage over this with tenderness. The day I look at a Twilight Turtle and see only capitalism and pain will be the day I’ve lost myself.

DMW: This collection figures whiteness not as the “absence of color,” (a notion you engage specifically in “Stanza”), but something much more palpable and multifarious. It’s “the flapping of the bird-white page” that resists the poet’s attempts to give voice in “Stanza” and a hostile presence in a place on the map where “no people live” in “New Year’s Eve.” Whiteness feels like a phenomenon that is larger than personal identity in the imagery of these poems, and seems connected to aggression of all kinds.

For instance, you never state the racial identity of the agent in “Extraordinary Rendition,” but because he is a representative of the United States intervening in the Middle East through drone strikes, I see him in my mind as white. So when the daughter of the interrogated man appears in the agent’s dreams “and the trumpet she presses against / her lips when she dreams entered his sleep / like a bird made of metal,” she looks like an angel of judgment to me, one that’s crying out for the “spark” from “New Year’s Eve” to “burn it all new.”

Can words and texts do some of the work of this apocalyptic renewal? And in representing whiteness more concretely, do you see yourself as contributing to a revision of the way that readers imagine race and power?

TQM: I think words and texts absolutely can help us rebuild during the apocalypse. For starters, they can tell us in a hundred different ways when the apocalypse is here, especially when we haven’t noticed its arrival yet! And to circle back to science fiction and futurism, words can allow us to imagine ourselves into a better future that doesn’t exist yet. Far from being an intellectual exercise, that imagined future can plant our present with the seeds of hope, courage, and faith that we can do the work to make that future a reality. I would hope that in that future colors would stop being dragged into our human dramas and used as weapons against each other.


Dorothy Meiburg Weller
Dorothy Meiburg Weller
Dorothy Meiburg Weller is a writer and teacher. Originally from the Southeast, she's lived in Austin for almost two decades and now considers it her hometown.

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