Thursday, June 17, 2010

J. Michael Martinez

J. Michael Martinez’s work has appeared in Five Fingers Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, on NPR, and most recently in Quarterly West, Eleven Eleven, Copper Nickel, and Parthenon West. He is the recipient of the 2006 Five Fingers Review Poetry Prize. His first collection of poetry, Heredities (2010, Louisiana State University Press), was selected by Juan Felipe Herrera for the Academy of American Poets' Walt Whitman Award. For more information, please visit J. Michael’s website.


When she was seven, my grandmother suffered from fever and swollen glands. The doctors believed her tonsils were inflamed, that she needed surgery. Instead, she went to a curandera. The curandera divined that a jealous relative had cast a curse on her and, now, her language of kindness was bound to her throat, the unspoken swelling her glands.

As a child my grandmother spoke to santitos with a voice like a chestnut: ruddy and warm, seeds dropping from her mouth. The santitos would take her words into themselves, her voice growing within them like grapevines.

During the tonsillitis, when the words no longer fell like seeds from her lips, the santito’s vineyards of accent and voice grew vapid, dry as a parched mouth. They went to her tongue and asked why silence imprisoned the words of the child, why lumps were present under her chin, why tears drew channels down her cheeks.

I asked my grandmother how her tongue replied. After touching my cheek, she told me she had a dream that night: She was within her lungs and she rose like breath through the moist of her throat. She remembered her tonsils swinging before her like fleshy apples, then a hand taking them into a fist, harvesting their sound. She told me her throat opened in two spots like insect eyes and the names of her children came flying through her wounds like peacocks.

Patting my thigh, she said, “That is why the name of your mother is Maria, because she is a prayer, a song of praise to the Holy Mother.” She told me this, then showed me two scars on her throat—tiny scars, like two eyelids stitched closed.

When was this poem composed? How did it start?

I write on a computer and, according to the file’s info, the poem was created on 7/16/04 at 3:35 pm.

My first memory of this story was at my grandmother’s home in the Spanish Colony in Greeley: sitting cross-legged in the dimly lit living room as my grandmother told the tale.

How many revisions did this poem undergo? How much time elapsed between the first and final drafts?

In his essay “Art as a Form of Reality,” Herbert Marcuse wrote, and I paraphrase, Art is only distinguished from non-Art by its attention to form.

That said, I’m an obsessive reviser and, typically, each poem I write undergoes at least thirty or more revisions (these revisions include massive overhauls and, more typically, the changing of a single term or line). This poem in particular has thirty files (I save each revision in a file and number them). The core of the poem is in the initial draft. I worked on sentence structure, rhythm and particular words in subsequent revisions, the latest being made just before its publication in late 2009.

Do you believe in inspiration? How much of this poem was “received” and how much was the result of sweat and tears?

When I write it takes a whole day of preparation in order to begin: reading (poetry, theology, theory) and coffee in the morning. I then lock myself in my room and churn out material for a number of hours into the evening. I never edit myself in the initial drafts of writing. (Typically, I never know what I am writing until a number of edits later.) Thus, one might speak of inspiration operating in those initial hours of writing; however, I’m more a student of Lorca than the Delphic oracle, more duende than inspiration as writing is, for me, a calling to the Jungian shadow to speak itself.

I had tried to write this particular "narrative" before. However, previous versions always failed. At the time I wrote the poem, I remember not having any idea of what I wanted and simply beginning.

How did this poem arrive at its final form? Did you consciously employ any principles of technique?

Enjambment is important to me: fragmentation invoking metaphysical disjunction. Edmond Jabes wrote, “Only in fragments can we read the immeasurable totality.”

For this poem, the prose poem form seemed appropriate. In later revisions, any form of lineation seemed disingenuous.

How long after you finished this poem did it first appear in print?

Well, it just appeared in Copper Nickel in January ’10. So, six years? Before Jake Adam York (the wonderful editor/poet at Copper Nickel) accepted the poem, I hadn’t sent it out.

Could you talk about fact and fiction and how this poem negotiates the two?

I don’t see the difference between the terms ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’: both are methods of description of this world. As a child I was raised to see the material world as a manifestation of a spiritual reality: the interior world is in constant dialogue with the world of manifestation, positing signs and symbols in answer/response to the deepest interior questions. The duality of fact/fiction seems to debase and reduce the provocation and re-creation that metaphor can offer to life. All this is to say, I navigate the world with a sense that a particular grace is always speaking itself outward, whether that is in a scientific study about global warming, watching a bird pivot, or with my grandmother describing her experience with spirits. Something Adorno said in his Aesthetic Theory resonates: “By their presence art works signal the possibility of the non-existent; their realities testify to the feasibility of the unreal, the possible.”

Do you remember who you were reading when you wrote this poem? Any influences you’d care to disclose?

I wrote this in 2004, so during my studies at George Mason University: Susan Howe, H.D., Rosmarie Waldrop, Lorca, Miguel Hernandez, Octavio Paz, Lyn Hejinian, James Wright, William Blake, and a host of others. I tend to dip into four or five books at a time. David Abram’s Spell of the Sensuous was important to me at that time.

Did you let anyone see drafts of this poem before you finished it? Is there an individual or a group of individuals with whom you regularly share work?

Melissa Tuckey, co-founder of Split This Rock, is the one consistent reader I’ve shared almost all my work with. Rebecca Stoddard is a poet whose attention to the ‘otherside’ of the poem, what it does not say, is amazing and whose opinion/critique I deeply value. I’ve also begun to share work with some new friends. Carmen Gimenez Smith has given me wonderful readings of the newer poems I’m working on (go buy her book, its gorgeous!). Recently, Roberto Tejada gave me some of the best advice I’ve received in years (go get his new book of poetry): when writing, to dwell in the conflict between the foreground and the subject.

How does this poem differ from other poems of yours?

Well, in relation to Heredities, it is one of four “narrative driven” prose poems; the other eighty or so pages of work is lyrically driven, fragmented, and invested in a different type of linearity.

What is American about this poem?

I can say what makes this poem an expression of the U.S. imaginary: I identify as a Chicano/US Latino.

Was this poem finished or abandoned?

Both. Released.

1 comment:

  1. JM, your description of your writing process is lovely, and I can see it as a I see a painting. I'm in love with this poem about your grandmother. I'm wild about her, and her story through your eyes. Thank you for this beautiful lens into your process and this powerful poem. ~Carmen