The Na/GloPoWriMo Interview with Rodney Gomez
Rodney Gomez’s first full-length book of poetry, Citizens of the Mausoleum, is being published by Sundress Publications. He is the author of several chapbooks, including Mouth Filled with Night (Northwestern University Press, 2014), winner of the Drinking Gourd Chapbook Poetry Prize; Spine (Newfound, 2015), winner of the Gloria Anzaldúa Poetry Prize judged by Ada Limón; and A Short Tablature of Loss (Seven Kitchens Press, 2016), winner of the Rane Arroyo Chapbook Prize judged by Eduardo C. Corral.
1. Why did you start writing poetry? Why do you still?
I started writing poetry when I was a child. I loved riddles and word games. I would create them for my friends and would love trying to think of new ways to describe commonplace things in order to stump them. Later, I formed friendships with a couple of young writers with whom I’d exchange creative work. Poetry was the language of our friendship.
I still write for pleasure, but I have other, practical, concerns. Poetry is a real way I deal with my constant anxiety, for instance. There is something deeply calming for me in the act of writing a poem. (And in the act of carefully reading a poem, which is why I review books.) Apart from that, I also think that I have an obligation to use what I create to do good. Not all the things I write have a social or political purpose, but many of them do. For example, Citizens of the Mausoleum has a long poem in it that deals with the Newtown massacre and addresses gun violence.
2. What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve gotten? The worst?
The best: write to write. Don’t worry about whether you are writing a poem, or whether you are making sense, or whether you are making a point. Decide later what it is. Write for the joy of writing. Write something and expose it to your internal scrutiny only some time later, if you want.
The worst: write to publish. I had an instructor who encouraged his students to write for certain journals. He wanted us to always have an audience in mind (other than the author) when we wrote. Which might be good for other kinds of writing, but not for poetry. An audience is good sometimes, but it’s nonsense to say you always need to have an audience in mind or that your goal should always be to see a poem in print.
3. How did your new book come into being?
Citizens of the Mausoleum is my first full-length collection, but it’s actually the second full-length collection I’ve completed. The first, Baedeker from the Persistent Refuge is set to be published early next year by YesYes Books. Citizens came to be when I put aside the first book after my mother’s death and decided to write about loss. That’s the general operating theme of the book—loss. And the poems in it deal with that theme in both direct and indirect ways. The death of my mother was a motivating factor, but the poems aren’t autobiographical. Writing the book was a very real way I coped with the overwhelming grief I experienced with her passing. Hers was the first major loss of my life, and it was amplified by the fact that, for the two and a half years before her death, she was bedbound and unable to talk or feed herself. My father refused to place her in a nursing home and so he, my sisters, and I took it upon ourselves to take care of her. Many of the book’s preoccupations stem from the turmoil of that time.
My mother passed away in 2010 and the book was picked up by Sundress Publications in 2016, so it took about five years to complete it. Naturally, when you lose something you think of all the other things you might have also lost. Or you think about what others have lost, too. I began to think of the burden of death and how it weighs on people, and what it does to their lives. So the book is a philosophical exploration of death as well. I also began to think more clearly about my responsibility as a poet, and how I needed to write about the kind of people who lived my mother’s life—the working poor, Latinas, and other overlooked people. A lot of the book takes place in the deep South Texas where I grew up. So the book is a sort of tribute not only to my mother, but to the place where she was born and grew up, and to the people who live there now.
4. Is there a generative prompt, practice or ritual that you find particularly helpful, or that you would recommend to students, friends, or other poets?
I write in brief bursts constantly throughout the day. Anything can serve as a prompt for me. What I find helpful for my writing is to keep as many tools as possible at my disposal. I write on my phone, my tablet, and journals. I always have a pen with me. And scraps of paper. I used to write only using a journal, but I couldn’t always get access to it and I’d lose lines and images that would appear during the day. Now I have multiple ways of recording. I write down everything I think might be a poem or become a poem. I decide later what to make of it.