Esteban Rodríguez is the author of eight poetry collections, most recently Lotería (Texas Review Press, 2023), and the essay collection Before the Earth Devours Us (Split/Lip Press, 2021). He is the interviews editor for the EcoTheo Review, senior book reviews editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and associate poetry editor for AGNI. He lives with his family in south Texas.
Krista A. Olivarez: You write a great deal about parents, particularly fathers. I wonder what parenthood means to you, and why it was such a big theme in this book.
Esteban Rodriguez: When I first began writing poetry, I was experimenting with a variety of voices, styles, and themes (I am sure if someone digs through the MFA archives there at UTRGV, they will find my thesis peppered with such attempts). As an emerging writer, such an approach was beneficial because it allowed me to see the ways in which I could and could not write. I discovered toward the end of my graduate program that I wanted to focus more exclusively on what I knew, or at least what I thought I knew even tangentially. I began excavating my memories, looking exclusively at my relationship with my mother and stepfather (who is for practical purposes “my father” in my poems), and I examined what it meant to be a son, especially in a Mexican American household by the border. After a few books, I’m not sure I have a thorough definition of parenthood, but I know it means love, care, and attention, that it requires a level of sacrifice that isn’t experienced in anything else.
KO: The use of second person point of view is something I admire a lot about your writing in this book. Why speak to a you and why not I or they?
ER: I like using both “you” and “I” in my poetry, but there are times when I feel like creating a distance between myself as an author and myself as a speaker. Using the “you” repeatedly in Lotería allowed me to see the world I was trying to depict in a different light. The writing became personal without being attached, and I was able to write from a perspective that kept the situation at arm’s length. I think this especially worked well for poems that centered on my mother’s or father’s point of view. Additionally, not having the “I” gave me more room to explore situations that were more surreal in nature.
KO: Is there any specific reason why you chose to write each of these poems in single stanzas that seem to run on? I’m wondering if this stream of consciousness type of writing is related to the way you present memories.
ER: I think I’ve grown a little disillusioned with gimmickry in poetry. Sometimes I question why certain lines are as long as they are, or certain stanzas are in couplets, tercets, or quatrains. Additionally, I wonder why white space is as pronounced as it is in poems where it feels like it’s being used as a crutch and I wonder if certain choices in punctuation really augment a poem’s meaning. As I’m writing this, I feel like I sound like some old man yelling at poets to get off my porch, but I hope readers will not think that I’m prescriptive by any means (this is not a Harold Bloom School of Resentment situation here). I’m critical of any text, regardless of how plainly or experimentally formatted it might be, and I think every reader should. This in turn led me to writing these poems in a single stanza. I thought that if I could focus exclusively on the text, then the substance of the poems would shine through. I don’t tend to stray too far from that sentiment when I write poetry, but if there is one thing I’ve learned over the past decade of writing is that style and format are never set in stone. Writers grow as people, and their writing is bound to change as well.
KO: Immigration is something else that you wrote a lot about. The topic is another important aspect of the Mexican American culture, as many of our loved ones have themselves crossed the border. You added some tenderness to it in poems like El arpa and El bandolón. Was this tenderness deliberate?
ER: I’m a strong believer that poetry collections should not merely be collections of poetry. The best poetry books are books that have connected subject matter, themes, and a consistent narrative (a narrative within the poetic landscape, that is), and I always strive to ensure that the poems in my books are related in some manner. But within that collection, variety is necessary, and the tenderness readers see in El arpa and El bandolón was indeed deliberate. While certain poems are more jarring and surreal, I knew I couldn’t sustain that mood for the entirety of the book, and therefore I deliberately worked on pieces that would be those “quiet moments” one reads in books, poetry or otherwise. In turn, the tenderness gave balance to the speaker’s sentiments, to his realization that there were things about his parents that he needed to discover and reflect on in order to understand the broader culture which he is a part of.
KO: I noticed themes of masculinity and sexuality in poems like El melon, La escalera, and La rosa. La rosa in particular was written so beautifully and ended sadly, but this is not uncommon in situations like this when it comes to our culture. What would you say is the role of machismo or toxic masculinity in this collection?
ER: Up until 8th grade, I grew up without a father (the “father” in my poems is actually my stepfather in real life, but with an impulsive and violent disposition (my stepfather, however, is by no means impulsive or violent)). So, the idea of toxic masculinity and machismo is still a bit foreign to me given that my interaction with it came from school or from the interactions I had with my friends’ fathers. My mother was a parent first and foremost, and she taught me empathy, care, love, and what it means to be a good person, which I strive to embody every day. But obviously, toxic masculinity and machismo is still quite prevalent along the border and across this country and the world. When I write about it, my intent is to show the manner in which it is displayed and how people who are the targets of such words and actions respond to it. Writing so intimately requires that the not-so-pretty is shown, but I’m confident that through such writing, a greater truth is discovered.
KO: El negrito is an excellent example of anti-blackness and internalized racism. I’d like to know more of your thoughts on this as a Latino man of color from the Valley.
ER: This poem is based on a story my mother told me about my younger cousin (who I won’t name here). His complexion was darker than the complexion of his two older siblings, and one day, in order to avoid the shame and embarrassment that he was feeling because of it, decided to scrub himself with soap in the shower until he was lighter. I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of sadness when my mother recounted how my aunt and uncle discovered my cousin in the bathtub, crying and smeared in soap. It sounded so tragic, so undeserving for any child to feel.
One of the things I’ve explored in my own writing is the fact that my complexion is light, and therefore, people sometimes assume that I’m white or that I come from a non-Hispanic background. I’ve navigated spaces that I don’t think some of my family members could have navigated so easily, and I’ve never felt that I’m the focal point of someone’s judgment based on the color of my skin. But obviously, I’m still Mexican American, so the cultural aspect of who I am contends with larger societal spaces I enter and inhabit. The speaker in my poems must straddle two cultures, the Mexican sphere of his parents and the American landscape he was born into. In a lot of ways, he’s in a cultural purgatory. He sometimes feels like he belongs. He sometimes doesn’t. But no matter which way he is rigged, he remains true to himself.
KO: What advice do you have for beginner writers who aspire to write about where they’re from and their culture?
ER: What you know is what you know, but how one conveys their personal experiences is unique to each writer. I share similar stories to other writers who grew up along the border, and yet, our manner of conveying those memories on the page is quite different. I think a part of the reason for this is our influences, particularly what we read. So, my best advice, and the only advice I think I have ever really had for young writers is to read. Read everything. Read what makes you feel uncomfortable. Read what isn’t always pretty. I don’t always write every day, but I do read every day, and through that reading, I know I’m learning and becoming a better writer. Also, in the course of your reading, find writers that you really enjoy, no matter how obscure they may be. The best books thus far written in the course of human history aren’t always found on the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble. They might not even be found at your local library. They may be out of print or difficult to find, but they are waiting to be read, to be understood by a new set of eyes.
KO: What’s your personal writing process like? What was it like specifically for Lotería?
ER: I must admit that I haven’t written a new poem in over a year (I have, however, been revising older poems and writing short stories and personal essays), but when I did write Lotería, it was through the Notes app on my phone. Any chance I had, whether it was at work, on a walk with my dogs, or right before sleep, I worked on the poem, adding a line, subtracting a phrase, moving words around to get the right mood and tone. I always had the poems with me, slowly, month after month, the collection came together. When all 54 poems were complete, I printed each out and spent a few weeks arranging and rearranging them, trying to ensure that I didn’t place poems with similar themes too close together and that I balanced tone, mood, and voice. I think overall, the arrangement was successful.
When it comes to writing essays or stories, I usually use a Google doc and alternate between writing on my computer and phone. Again, having the ability to have my work close to me allows me to capture any ideas I have at the moment. It also makes the process of writing more continuous, and there is no better feeling than closing that distance between my thoughts and what ultimately gets put on the page.