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VERVE {IN} VERSE: IN CONVERSATION WITH LUPE MENDEZ

Note: Verve {in} Verse is my poet-focused feature here at The Kenyon Review in which I converse with poets about their work and interests both on and off the page. I don’t say this lightly, that meeting Lupe Mendez at CantoMundo in 2014 was one of the highlights in my three years of Canto summer retreats. Warm, funny and genuine, Lupe lit up the workshops all of us fellows shared that summer, and I truly saw that the workshop environment could be positive and invigorating. I’d also like to add that he and Jasminne Mendez (with whom I just spoke to here) have done so much for Latinx poetry through their events and activism like the Tintero Project and Inkwell. Here Lupe tells us about his new collection Why I Am Like Tequila, how Galveston and the Gulf Coast shaped him, what it takes to survive a storm and balancing that “#ThatDadLife with #ThatHusbandLife with #ThatWritersLifeTho.” -Rosebud Ben-Oni

 

Rosebud Ben-Oni:  Can I begin by telling everyone to drop everything, buy your book and read “The Exorcist on TV the Night Hurricane Alicia Fell” right now? Because this is one of the most powerful poems I’ve ever read: “I told my father I worried/about mother, said she would be home that night. He kept working/ in between swigs of Miller High Life and duct tape. I helped him/ in the afternoon, x all the windows, between trips to the bar next door./ I prayed for food. I did not eat that day.” Even the epigraph that reveals “the name “Allison” was retired after striking the same area as Alicia” just adds to its evocative narrative, tone and flow. Can you speak on how this poem took shape?

Lupe Mendez: Mil Gracias Rosebud – so yeah, I think this poem and a few others I have written in the collection are moments I am trying to pay respect to – not as in something I owe respect to – but rather the idea that nature and the natural world can be a thing of awe, a thing that takes your breath away because you can never know how far this natural world reaches up into your societal notions and tears them down.  Any of the storms I have lived through – and can say, as an Islander, you survive them – they impact you. A hurricane lives you as slowly as it came in, but like a primo who overstays their welcome, they leave all the mess for you to clean up. This poem came from a wanting to tell about what goes on in the moment of survival. This poem comes from the notion that we cannot forget we live among dioses y diosas Yemaya and Tlaloc, and any of the four winds; a reminder that we cannot forget our very place in the world.  I wanted to give context to what a day looks like as a storm comes – it is preparation and actualization. You can never know what to expect and your wits are all you can hang onto. I wanted the dread there, but I also wanted the magia when the ocean breathes upon the land something deep and vital like a storm and its breaks.

RB: Poets often are curious on how other poets break up their collections into sections. Why I Am Like Tequila has four sections: “Raices [Roots],” “Mezontle [Heart],” “Pencas [Leaves],” and “Maguey [Body].” Can you speak on these different sections as movements toward and/or from themes or progressions?

LM: The whole book and the idea behind the book are based on just a tad bit of science – the understanding that a full-grown maguey (the agave plant) takes a while to grow before harvesting. It takes a full 7 years for the plant to mature before it is harvested for its root. I thought of this and the idea that the human body goes through a yearly transformation itself: every 7 years, all the cells in our body slowly replace themselves with new cells – and so I thought on this – this idea that somehow under intense pressure and heat, under the act of stripping away what is not needed, getting at the core of the body, we are all like some variation of this drink.  I associated the parts of the maguey to the parts of the body and organized it from there. The “Raices [Roots],” part is about my beginnings, at essence, who I can figure out to define myself as under the name GUADALUPE. The origins of this name, the people and places that hold this name and the a special nod to the religious icon (but a more decolonized approach to the narrative. The “Mezontle [Heart],” are all the people and the places I keep in closest to me. The “Pencas [Leaves],” part is all about the world I try to affect in my life as an organizer, as a teacher, as an activist, as a human being, and the last part “Maguey [Body]” is me paying respect to other bodies I have witnessed or listened to as they move or have moved through the world. It is all a progression – it is a form of refinement, a form of fluidity that sets its self up to linger in you, much like a sip of Herradura would sit in the belly, warm and filling.

RB: Let’s talk about the title poem “Why I Am Like Tequila,” which is brilliant. The “footnotes” themselves are poetry, and illuminate and sing us toward the “mezontle” of the poem, while also being deeply personal. For instance, we learn that “Talache” means “(really, yo?) a tool, a pick axe, older than you, shares the age with dirt, with work, with iron, with rust, with wood, with houses, with bridges, with dig, with dug, with ditch, with edge, with groove.” How did you conceive of this poem and its form?

LM: I had read Junot Diaz’s Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Waoa few years back and saw what he had done to the footnote in the narrative of the book and had the idea: what would this look like in the form of a poem? I thought about the fact that the narrator in the book broke the 4thwall of the book to speak to the reader, half translator, half auxiliary narrator informing the reader on the context and meanings that might be necessary. I wanted to push that boundary and see what I could add in that was both personal, but also a legitimate play on how we view language and prose and meter and informational writing. I wanted a little bit of everything to live in this poem.

RB: Why I Am Like Tequila delves into the relationship between the state of Texas and Latinx culture, as seen through the lens of religion and politics. Can you speak on this relationship?

LM: I wanted to write something that was both historically accurate, but also narrative in a sense. I wanted to honor the spaces of my antepasados, but also call attention to the spaces where we exist now. I wanted to pull at all the heroics and villainy that exists in this State. La jura, los Texas Rangers, los curas, la virgen, Allison, Alicia – they are all real. I want the reader to know about the ways being Mexican has given us new power while also seeing how that power can be threatened.

RB: Galveston and the Gulf Coast play a vital role in the book; how did the Gulf Coast shape you in your early years as a poet?

LM: Mujer, wow, yes to this question! I have always had this love/lost love relationship with one of my homes Jalisco being the other space, the cerros and the campos of my youth – but this barrier island I know as a home, Galveston is full of beauty, of silence, of legend, of racism, of serenity, of entrapment, of horizon. It is a complex place. I always have lived with the tension inside myself: this wanting to be home, to be at calm by the sea, to swim the ocean and just exist, but then also this gnawing at the body that says to go some where, that feels trapped or overlooked. Even now, with a daughter and a wife, we go to the beach, and I think, man, I would love to just move home and raise her here in this space, so she can understand the magnitude of witnessing a sunrise come up on a jetty – but then at the same time, I wonder, do I risk coming home to this slowdown pace, to this space that can still prove to be a bit racist (not to mention the fact that Galveston County is the 3rd most GOP-voting county in Texas), to this space that in the last 3 years or so finally got a small poetry scene going?  I struggle with the idea part of an island even today. It always gave me a desire to write. It gave me wonder and sorrow and this fed my beginnings as a writer.

RB: What does community mean to you? How do you balance it with the solitary nature of writing?

LM: Community is always comunidad – as in mi gente, as in YOU AND ME and what we can build together. I think about all the ways to hype up my peers, to support the younger poets and provide, provide, provide. I don’t think of the writing life as a solitary one – I am such an extrovert about it all – I feed off interactions. Yes, I DESIRE to be a part of it all – because these interactions allow me to help mold the next words I push forward. I think about it like building a fire. Its that moment when you accidently blow out the fire and then have to move fast to get it light back up against. I write in between the embers and the breaths in getting this fire started.

RB: Who are you reading now? What poets excite you?

LM: I am currently reading Sarah Borjas book, Heart Like a Window, Mouth Like a Cliff and Field Theories by Samiya Bashir. I am taken aback by the forms they explore, the very voice they speak with – there is a certainty they evoke that the truth is exactly what they say it is. I find myself constantly having to put the books down as I think about the notions they let linger in my head and my body. Magia, pura magia.

RB: What’s next for you? What are you working on now?

LM: I am busy as hell right now (wouldn’t have it any other way) figuring out a way to balance #ThatDadLife with #ThatHusbandLife with #ThatWritersLifeTho with planning out the next season of Tintero Projects and the Inkwell Podcast series, as well as being a teaching artist for the Poetry Foundation, co-editing a folio for the Acentos Review with Peggy Robles-Alvarado, serving as the Literary Outreach Coordinator for Poets and Writers here in Houston and just started a new job as a Teacher Development Specialist for the Houston Independent School District. And a nap.

I am also planning out this year’s tour for the book as well as working slowly on the next book project – a docupoetry book on the history of desegregation of schools here in Houston, but looking at the process through the eyes of the Mexican American / Mexican populations of the North and East sides of Houston.