Interview by Hector Mojena
David Tomas Martinez’s debut collection of poetry, Hustle, was released in 2014 by Sarabande Books, winning the New England Book Festival’s prize in poetry, the Devil’s Kitchen Reading Award, and honorable mention in the Antonio Cisneros Del Moral prize. Martinez’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry, Boston Review, Oxford American, Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. He has been featured or written about in Poets & Writers, Publishers Weekly, NPR’s All Things Considered, NBC Latino, Buzzfeed, and many others. Martinez is a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing program, and he is the reviews and interviews editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts. He has been a Breadloaf and CantoMundo Fellow, and is currently a visiting assistant professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, TX.
The sprawl of Southeastern San Diego dominates David Tomas Martinez’s Hustle (Sarabande Books, 2014).Martinez’s writing maps out an entire geography filled with dark impulses that manifest, often violently, in the house parties and crime scenes in which his most harrowing verses are set. In anticipation of his recent engagements at this year’s Miami International Book Fair and the Reading Queer Literary Festival, The Southeast Review spoke with Mr. Martinez about his life and career as well as his thoughts on what it means to be a poet-of-color.
Hector Mojena: For our readers, can you explain your personal background? What attracted you to poetry in the first place?
David Tomas Martinez: All of these things are sort of inextricable from themselves. How I became a poet, my history, how [my poetry collection] Hustle came to be. So much of Hustle is about me being a teenager in Southeast San Diego and being in a gang, being a teenage father, selling drugs and all of the sort of things that came with that. I didn’t start going to college until I was 21 and that was only to play basketball. I had already dropped out of high school to go back to high school, to adult school, to go to the Navy, to get kicked out of the Navy, to go to Job Corps to paint houses. Had a son, then ended up getting another having another son…and this is all before I even stepped onto a college campus. So I sort of had a whole lifetime before I went to school.
One of the things I found most interesting about Hustle is the way that you create this whole world of impulses that exist beneath the physical world of your poems. I think specifically about “Calaveras” and “On Palomar Mountain.” We have images of cars that are waiting to be broken into, storefronts waiting to be robbed. It seems as if all of these things are always fated to happen in your work, that each part of the environment bears the mark of some future destruction or other transformation. I’m wondering about the play of these impulses and their real world manifestations in your work.
I think that we are sort of products of our environment. I very much believe that. As fortunate as I have been in my life and the things that have happened, I know that I’m not the smartest motherfucker that I grew up with. I grew up with a lot of smart fucking people, people that had an affinity for language. They were smart. They were strong. They were athletic. They had a gift that I was envious of. They weren’t able to transcend the difficulties that we had growing up for whatever reason. Some had a more difficult time. Some probably had a less difficult time; however, they were unable to extricate themselves from various difficulties of our environment. How much is luck, how much is chance? All this stuff I don’t know.
But also, I think that in this environment, we are not as aware of all the forces. So what you’re saying about the car being broken into and this environment that is sort of pliable to our desires, that’s biblical right there. We were all born with that shit. The idea that every snake and creepy crawly is for man’s good. And obviously I say man because of biblical man, but I mean person. It’s all to fulfill our needs, to fulfill our desires. That’s biblical. And this shit is all around, but we don’t think about it that way. It’s just like, “Well this is part of the Bible.” And it’s ubiquitous and pervasive in our thinking.
Look at the way we treat the planet. We treat the planet like a big dumpster fire that we throw shit into. It’s not this reciprocal relationship we have. That’s not how the fuck we act. We act as if everything is take, take, take. Especially when you are in a place where you don’t have everything you need and you don’t have everything you desire, and if everyone is trying to take, the sharks are going to come out. There’s this sort of animalistic mark of your nature. We are animals. This is survival. It’s just that we happen to live in a “civilized” society.
I think in Hustle there’s a great attention to rituals and language. The slang and gang signs employed by the characters in your poems and the ritualized displays of tattoos on skin suggest how language and rituals are constantly mixing and gaining new meanings. I’m wondering how you explore these kinds of interactions in your poetry. Is there an imperative to fluidly mix different types of speech and ritualized acts?
I try to be aware of what my language signifies in a larger context. So we talk all day long; we just throw words around. But we’re wasteful with our words. And we don’t really think about them in context. I’m going to go on a little bit of a digression. One of the things I see, especially amongst people of color right now, is the appropriation of culture. That is a hot-button topic right now. People of color, I think because of the pervasiveness and ubiquitousness of whiteness, are like, “You’re appropriating culture.” Understandably, people are like, “What is the problem with that? We’re getting in a stance like cholos and drinking a 40.” People of color ask, “Are you kidding me?” Now, what they don’t see, is that by this lampooning of Chicano culture and/or Black culture, it is an escape from their whiteness. And by escaping from their whiteness, they are showing by implication that they are allowing themselves to give into their more animalistic side. It says that people of Black and Brown culture particularly are less than. What is the Platonic ideal? To appropriate an idea, [which] is whiteness. We don’t think about that.
Another instance of this that we don’t think about is the euphemisms for sex and how they uphold patriarchy, how they do violence to the female body. All of these things are embedded in the way that we speak. We’re not conscious of any of it. We’re not conscious of the way that we’re upholding patriarchy, white supremacy, how we’re holding up gender roles and class.
What I try to do in my poetry is mix up all of these things and, by juxtaposing slang and academic language, I try to remove the hierarchy. That’s just the way I speak and there’s no getting away from that. I grew up in the hood, but I’ve also been academically trained. That’s just how the fuck I speak! If you talk with me, that’s how I’m going to go. Dichotomy is the wrong word, but there are different facets, to go a little more post-modern—I’m multi-faceted like all. I contain multitudes, like Whitman and shit. Like that’s how it goes. Other people feel especially as they get into academia, they need to not only adapt a certain thinking, but that’s the only way to be. And with me I think to a certain extent, I covet my otherness, I covet my brownness, I covet my Chicanoness. I’m proud to be brown. I’m proud that my last name is Martinez. That’s a big deal to me. Now that doesn’t mean that it’s all alright and everything about it is good. But that’s something I’m proud of and I’m happy about it. It’s a hodgepodge and there’s a lot of reasons why I try to mix registers of language. It’s interesting and that’s what we do naturally even though we don’t think about it that way. What is poetry but charged language?
Having an awareness of your own ethnicity within the academy, I’m wondering how in your own work as a poet you navigate your brownness. With imprints like Action Books increasingly privileging work by poets of color, I’m wondering how the work of poets like yourself is informed by the expectations of the academy and how you attempt to speak truth to power in your own poems.
It depends on who you ask. Am I that radical? I wrote strictly metrically for two years in undergrad where I wrote blank verse. I’m not pushy or experimental in my verse or anything, but I think what I do try to do is shake up the status quo. But that goes on both sides. It’s easy to point out what’s wrong and the contradictions in academia and in whiteness. That shit’s everywhere. That’s ducks in a barrel. I walk out in the road and here’s some more white problems. I used to not be able to drive down the street without getting pulled over. I’ve been outside a bathroom and had the cops pull me out of the bathroom by gunpoint. I mean, half the time I was up to something, but that’s not the point [laughs]. It ain’t like that now and I think, what’s different?
My point is that the whiteness part is easy to point out. What I find difficult is that, at times, for people of color, everything is pointed outward and, at times, there’s a different meaning about the self and how do we approve ourselves. I understand to a certain extent [this question of] “how can I be a full self?” Or how can I be a person when you’re not making me feel like a person? To me that’s a cop-out. I think that’s bullshit. I think we all have people in our lives who, maybe for that person, we’re blaming everybody else. Yeah, we have to be attacking white supremacy, but we also have to be working on ourselves to explain what’s wrong and what’s problematic. I don’t know how I feel about that shit. I try to write about what I think and what I see. I see problems in the world, but I don’t have an agenda. And I think that all poetry is political by nature. It’s inevitable, even by not being political or being aware, you’re complicit with all the things that are wrong with the world. And I don’t want that. I admire those [who write for social action]. I want to write entertaining poetry. I just don’t want to have a message [that] I’m going to bang you over the head with. I also don’t want to push hypocrisy as well. For example, this idea that we attack whiteness, but people of color can do no wrong. That shit ain’t right either. I’m an equal opportunity sniper.
Going back to what you were saying about writing not solely with some “big message” in mind, there’s certainly been a lot of discussion about whether literature, film, and other art should have some kind of agenda in regards to pushing boundaries of race, gender, and sexuality. You see it the wealth of stories playing on movements like Black Lives Matter or even in the work of organizations like the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo, which has used social media as a launching pad to quickly disseminate and discuss issues on the literary scene. How do you navigate saying something critical with your poetry and striving to entertain your readers?
The manuscript that I’m currently at work on—I’m in the draft stage of this—more overtly deals with politics. [I had] something that was up on The Poetry Foundation called “Us Vs. Them.” That sort of overtly deals with more political and racial othering and how we construct these ideas, these narratives of safety. For me, it’s in the work. If I feel like I’m sacrificing my poetry for the sake of some message, fuck that, I killed that poem and that poem’s dead.
Recently, there was the example of Kenneth Goldsmith’s poem, which incorporated Michael Brown’s autopsy report. In his mind, that was an example of a message poem, but many saw the poem as debasing.
There’s been a lot written about that. He’s trying to be provocative and people are like, “Fine, we’ve had enough of that. Stop using our black and brown bodies as your fodder.” That was the biggest blowback with that. But I think that sort of encapsulates what goes wrong with political poetry sometimes. You’ve got so much of a message or you have so much of an intent with what you’re trying to do. You can see it in young writers’ work when they say, “I’ve got to tell you about when my parents got divorced!” They lose all idea of how to write a good poem. “No, you’ve gotta understand that my parents divorced and it fucked me up for life and I have nothing else!” If you want to write poetry about racism and you feel like, “I gotta get this shit out, I gotta talk about how racism is bad,” you’re doomed to fail, G! Already from Jump Street, boom! You got the gun in your hand and it went off.
On top of that, racism and white supremacy are so pervasive, they become something that people don’t see. If you’re not somewhat entertaining, there’s no way you’re going to have an audience to be able to have a message in the first place. I mean, racism is so rampant, you don’t even have to try and stumble across it, thematically, in poetry for it to show up. Poetry works best when it is a sort of implied argument. I think of a poem like Wallace Stevens’ “Sunday Morning” and you have the that image of the “wing descended.” That is much more powerful. It’s the implication. It’s the way that symbols work versus, by implication, which can be so much more powerful when used effectively.
I can’t say anything in my poems that someone hasn’t heard before. Most of that at some point is thinking that I’ve picked up and that I’ve sort of incorporated into my own language. That’s my own thinking, that’s just what it is. To be heavy-handed or didactic—how arrogant is that? “I’m going to teach you, I’m going to let you know.” Get the fuck out of here! I think I’m a smart motherfucker, but everybody does. We’re all walking around the planet like we’re the smartest motherfucker here. And we know better. You bump up against somebody else, and you think, “Maybe they’re a little smarter, maybe they’re a little better” … That’s how we all go about the planet. A lot of times people are drunk on their own pervasive ideas of the world. I’m not trying to go around and argue the sky is falling. I have this story, and hopefully I’ll tell it well, it’ll sound nice, and I’ll throw an image or two in there. And then I get to feel good about myself because I get to walk around like, “I’m the smartest dude around!” [Laughs]
I wanted to ask about how your own involvement with Reading Queer came about.
If you’re a person who likes to think of themselves as attempting to be conscious and aware, we all have our various focal points. A lot of mine have to do with masculinity and power. The environment I grew up in was one that, for better or for worse, I adopted as a heterosexual brown man trying to get power. And so it was easy for me to see racism. “Oh yeah, I know about racism. Please believe!” It was not easy for me to see misogyny, heteronormativity. I understood class. I think if you can see one of them, you have to believe in all of them. They share contiguous ground.
In my writing, I’m always trying to indict myself, and also that’s a big deal for me—indicting myself and not just indicting other people because we’re all complicit in this shit. And so, for me, Reading Queer is just such an important organization, and it’s something I got to be a part of. When they asked me to read, I was stoked and I was like shit, “que shiznit!” I just wanted to be down. And then I was going to read with three poets that I seriously respect, and they’re doing their thing. I was reading at the Miami International Book Fair anyway. And then they asked me to go talk to some at-risk kids, and I was down. I think my work has resonated with a bunch of different people, but because a lot of the experiences are about being a teenager, being in your formative years emotionally, physically, and intellectually, that resonates with people in that situation
The organization makes it one of their major aims to highlight that there are many forms of discrimination and difference at play in the world.
We have to understand our perspective. That’s one of the problems that people have. I don’t expect people to fully understand their perspective. I think that is impossible without heavily considering one’s situation and life, daily. We all have blind spots and we must accept that we don’t understand where our prejudices lie, so we may change them. Just because you’re part of one oppressed group doesn’t mean that you can’t help by being complicit and oppressing others. This is just the nature of being. If you’re a thinking person, if you’re a conscious person, a person that’s trying to be aware, you’ve got to extricate [yourself] from that shit
With a platform like Reading Queer and the Miami International Book Fair itself, you can reach an audience of people who have a specific interest in re-interpreting axes of gender, sexuality, and race. Do you see poetry potentially as a medium for action? Does you own work provide any means for you to do this?
I respect what the [Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo] is doing. I think they serve a very important function. We need all people in a society challenging and questioning and not letting these things that many people take for granted as just proof. We need people questioning that stuff. Whether you’re always right or wrong, we need that. I think right now with poetry, it’s great.
I think I do try to push boundaries in my way. I am part of academia and I’ve been fortunate that I’m on a great independent press finishing a PhD at the University of Houston, which I consider the top PhD in the country. I’m inside the bastion…the spy, all that shit. And at times, because I am who I am, I’ve butted against whiteness and people being offended. I don’t consider myself that brash. I’m just me. I don’t think about who I’m trying to offend today. That’s a problem thinking like that. I’m going to do what I do, think what I think, and say what I say. Obviously, I would like to do right and I try to be considerate. For some things, that doesn’t do any good. You just have to rip the band-aid off. I think that for poetry, because [it’s] sort of marginal and there’s not such a large audience, you [can be] on the forefront of thinking. This country changes. It has to change. In California, Latinos are the majority. Are you kidding me? But there’s a difference between number and power. Latinos have number, no power. Latinos are not the first to eat, not even in places where we may be the predominant group, which is problematic. We have to make distinctions between number and power.
Hector Mojena is a writer and sometime editor currently based in Tallahassee, Florida. In addition to publishing work in magazines such as Strangeways and editing for the Miami Rail, Hector enjoys playing the drums and singing the praises of the Velvet Underground to anyone who will listen.