Let's talk about borders. Mexico being so close, what is its proximity to your literary imagination? Are there demarcation lines—is there a place where one ends and the other (U.S.) begins in your creative life as a Chicano writer?
Mexico, like the Western canon,
must be voraciously consumed, and occasionally regurgitated.
Explore your family history for us. How did you end up where you are?
My father was born and raised in a small Mexican village with the same name as the ship Hart Crane leapt from: Orizaba. His mother died from tuberculosis when he was a boy. His father had to raise him along with two other brothers. His father owned a pool house in the village, and as the three brothers got older, he sold it off so his sons wouldn't be corrupted by its influence. He should've kept the pool house. My father and his brothers were alley cats, drunks, and cads. I've heard so many outrageous stories about my father's adventures during his teenage years. He started many fights. He conquered many girls. The photographs I've seen of him as a young man take my breath away. He was a strikingly handsome man. A smooth complexion. A gaze as quick and as blinding as a camera flash. A stout Indian nose. A pencil-thin mustache. He was the type of guy Hart Crane would've made a pass at.
My father was no saint growing up, but he was never indolent. He sold tacos on the streets. He built yokes and carts. He worked in the fields. And starting in the late 60s and the early 70s, he came to the States to find seasonal field work. He tells me it was easy back then to enter and to leave the States. He had no difficulty finding field work and he had no difficulty returning to Mexico after the harvest. Once in awhile he would get caught by the border patrol and he would be deported. In fact, his first airplane flight was aboard an INS plane.
My mother's tale is too personal to tell. But in the early 70s she wound up in Arizona working for an elderly white woman as a domestic. My father was working for the husband of this woman as a handyman/gardener. They met, and I'm assuming the sparks flew, because my mother was soon pregnant with me.
It took my parents five years after my birth to secure resident alien status,
so whenever they traveled to and from Mexico, my mother would carry me through
holes in the fence along the Nogales border. This fact pleases me to no end.
What is the childhood of a poet like?
Bookless. I don't remember a
lot books—besides the Bible and various magazines—in our house.
Reading was something I did at school.
When did you begin writing, and why?
I began writing poetry in 1996. I signed up for a Chicano/a literature course at Arizona State. When I found out the course required creative writing I almost dropped the course. The first time I read one of my poems out loud my hands shook, and I almost threw up. The instructor of the course, Dr. Arturo J. Aldama, was an amazing teacher and mentor. He saw something in those first poems of mine. He encouraged me to read a wide range of poets, from Derek Walcott to Adrian C. Louis. He taught me Chicano/a literature was an extension and rejection of the American canon.
I often wonder why I didn't stop
writing after the course finished. I think ego had something to do with
Aldama showered my work with kind words,
as did Alberto Rios and Norman Dubie. If one of them had reacted negatively
to my work I probably would have stopped writing. Oh, fragile ego! After
the course was over, I continued to take Chicano/a studies classes with Dr.
Aldama. One day he asked me to photocopy some material from his files. As
I thumbed through his filing cabinet I came upon a manila folder labeled "Eduardo
C. Corral: Poems." I was stunned to discover he was saving my work.
My poems! I decided, right then and there, to become a poet worthy of the
attention of a man as intelligent and as generous as Dr. Aldama.
Tell us about your relationship with your family now that you have chosen to walk a literary path. With Octavio Paz and many other luminaries carving a space in the Chicano imagination, what is it like to be an artist in your family?
Sadly, I'm walking on this literary path without my family. My siblings have shown no interest in reading my work. My parents don't read English so my work is out of their reach.
The border is a line that marks
difference. On one side, the American narrative; on the other, the Mexican
narrative. Identity, for me, functions like the borderlands: a site of
hybridization, of interlingualism.
Is the American literary canon amenable to re-definition and/or re-creation? Does the marginal contemporary poet of today like yourself have to create his own canon, or does he have to address the old ones, or both? Why?
A few Chicano/a poets have been accepted into the American literary canon, but the canon has, so far, only accepted Chicano/a poetry that mirrors its traditions. If I flip through the Norton anthology I have to reach the 1970s to find the last names I can pronounce beautifully. In the work of these Chicano poets—Gary Soto, Alberto Rios, Lorna Dee Cervantes—you will find cultural-specific work, but the work is also richly infused with the influence of the Western canon. I adore the work of these poets. It has influenced me immensely. But these poets have been accepted by the editors of the Norton anthology for a reason: their poems can be easily consumed by Anglo readers. These poets work in English. The shapes of their poems are gorgeous repetitions of traditional poetic structures. Their poems educate the reader but don't admonish the reader. The work of Chicano poets like Gloria Anzaldúa, Alurista, José Montoya whose poems flaunt the linguistic influence of caló, Spanglish, and Mesoamerican languages, whose poems force Anglo readers to reckon with past and current injustices are absent from the Norton. The American canon has rejected Chicano/a writers who play in red dirt. The work of Anzaldúa, Montoya and Alurista requires a deep and profound knowledge of Mesoamerican and Chicano histories. Most Anglo readers—heck, most Mexican-Americans—don't have the education or the will to unlock the beauty of these poems.
I fear that most of my work fit too neatly into the American literary tradition. I have to remind myself I'm still an apprentice. I have to absorb many influences. From Wallace Stevens to Reyes Cárdenas. From Li Po to Rita Dove. I'm hoping my future work will re-configure these influences in interesting ways. My work will always be in communication with the American canon. That's to be expected. I'm an American. But I'm an American who identifies himself as a gay Chicano. So my work will always aim to extend the possibilities of American literature. I especially hope my future work will be inscribed with the influence of the music popular along the border: the staccato beats, and compressed narratives of corridos, the lilt and folk-centric flavor of Norteñas.
And I'm grateful I won't be the
only one on this journey. Jose Skinner, Oscar Casares, Manuel Muñoz,
Emmy Perez, and Maria Melendez are emerging writers who are walking down
Is there a writer that made you one? Is there a poet that opened your eyes to the possibilities of poetry? Is there a poem?
The first poet whose work I seriously read and studied was Gary Soto. His poems taught me how to develop figurative language in a poem. His poems taught me how to write a tight line. His poems taught me how the personal is universal. When he wrote of the working class, of his Fresno landscape it felt as if he were transcribing the experiences of the people from my neighborhood. His poetry led me to the work of other poets like Philip Levine, and Pablo Neruda. Levine and Neruda led me to the work of Walt Whitman and Rainer Maria Rilke. Etc. I'm thankful the work of a Chicano poet opened my eyes to the possibilities of poetry.
How important is community?
Are writers lone wolves?
How do you want to be remembered by the next generation?
A poet wants to be remembered for his poems. But one has no control over this. I would like to be remembered as a mentor, as a community builder.
I've had an amazing mentor: Rigoberto Gonzalez. He's provided sound and astute advice on many occasions. He's also a wonderful community builder. He reviews Latino/a titles for El Paso Times. He writes letters of recommendation. He organizes gatherings at AWP. Our community is also benefiting from the work of Richard Yañez and Francisco Aragón. Yañez started and maintains CLICA, an online resource for Latino/a writers. Aragón publishes the work of young writers through his Momotombo Press, and he's editing an anthology of the next wave of Latino/a poets that will be published by the University of Arizona in 2006.
But the Chicano/a community has a lot of work to do. Unlike the African American and Asian American communities, we don't have national organizations to support our literary endeavors. Where is our Asian American Writers' Workshop? Where is our Cave Canem? We—the next wave—spend a lot of time discussing our disappointment with the Chicano/a writers who came before us. Why didn't they pool their influence and resources to start some organizations to help young writers? Most of them are only interested in their slice of the pie. Sad but true. But things will change. We've made a conscience decision to be different. We will start national organizations. We will create professional and informal networks to support each other's careers and writing. We will be a community. A wild, diverse Chicano/a community.
And I also want to be remembered for my killer legs.
What would you advise a young writer, or a writer-of-color about the literary life?
Dear Young Chicano/a Poet,
The literary life is hard work. Read, read, and then write. Revise. Poems can be biographical and imaginary, culture-specific and universal. Your Abuela is not special. Read the world. Open your mental veins. Synthesize. Absorb Hamlet. Read the African American canon. Note how African American poets incorporate their history, their vernacular, their music into their work. Steal, steal, steal. Distill. Absorb the literary work of your culture. Figurative language need not be pretty. Adopt. Duende is like the Force from Star Wars. Obsess over several poets. Absorb Robert Hayden. Reject some aspects of your culture. Language is Queen. Lie. It all has been done before, but not by you. Adapt.
Email Eduardo C. Corral: firstname.lastname@example.org