Our poetry co-editor Erin Post recently had this exchange with John Manuel Arias, our Issue #24 featured poet. Here’s what he had to say about his process of writing to music, his use of research in conceiving and crafting poems, and the role poetry plays in connecting us to our feelings.
The poems we’re featuring in Mud Season Review play with form in unique ways – “Breath Hold Break Point” uses slashes, while “Coffy” and “La Cumparista” create their own rhythm, out of breaks, within lines and between lines. How do you arrive at decisions around form? What is the relationship you’re looking to create between form and content?
I listen to music when I write. Whether it’s a story or an essay or a poem, my earphones are in, and the rest of the world is shut out. And this past year I’ve really gotten into more profound, experimental electronic music: UKG, deep house, minimal, dark wave, chopped and screwed. They all create this weird, new, super simple and repetitious sound that I’m totally in love with. And while writing my collection, these sub-genres became a sort of white noise—the same songs in the same playlist playing over and over, until they began to sync up with the energy I was putting into the poems.
And it’s sort of appropriate for my process. Because when I write poems, they flow out in one sitting, like a stream of consciousness. Just words and emotions fighting to get out, that sometimes frankly feel like vomit. (Is vomiting a poetic process???) Super gross, I know. But it’s afterwards, when I’m done “purging,” that I begin to play with form—breaking lines, punctuating, manipulating to a point that it looks intentional. But it never is, really. It happens instinctually. I’m breaking these lines and adding dashes because it just looks and sounds good in my head. I feel like these DIY musicians in their basements doing what my ear and eyes tell me is right. Most of the time, I honestly have no idea what I’m doing. I’m just listening to some internal, cosmic rhythm.
PS: Artists to help you understand these poems: ABRA, Thomas Schwartz & Fausto Fanizza, Rihanna, Munchi, Burial, Sonambulo Psicotropical, Destiny’s Child & many more (check out my SoundCloud).
Although it manifests in different ways, there’s a certain ‘haunting’ quality to the pieces we’re featuring that in some cases verges on the surreal. Can you talk about tone in this context – is a particular tone something you strive for? Where does it come from for you?
I’m loving that you find it haunting. That makes me feel dope and edgy.
Honestly, I’m not striving for any particular tone in my poems. They just seem to come out like that. Depressing, violent, lonely, grotesque, but maybe-kind-of-beautiful-in-a-sad-way could all describe my poems. But surreal and haunting I like a lot. It says a great deal about the place where these poems are coming from.
Maybe from childhood memories, catastrophic breakups with sociopaths (I have a bad habit with that, actually), struggling with health and mental illness… they all contribute, I’m sure. But sometimes, I got to say, it’s blood memory that’s seeping through. Familial karma, I like to call it. Inheriting bad juju from your ancestors who didn’t pay for it in their lifetimes. Suffering for things you didn’t do. Maybe stuff you might repeat, but as of this moment, stuff you haven’t even thought of committing. And this karma feels like a phantasm a lot of the time. So that might be where the haunting quality in my poetry comes from. Constantly hearing a voiceless spirit who somehow knows your name.
Some of the pieces we feature reference people or characters – Aileen Wuornos, Coffy, Soraya Montenegro – that add another layer to the piece. For example, upon looking up Aileen Wuornos, I was rewarded with a more nuanced and surprising reading of the poem. What’s your take on the balance between asking the reader to do some work, and creating a piece that stands alone?
Aileen Wuornos is one of my favorite poems in the collection (shhh, don’t tell the others). I love it because it’s so sad. And it’s so sad because she herself was such a sad and complicated person: a woman, a serial killer, a survivor of rape, a psychopath, a Pisces, and a hitchhiking hooker all rolled into one human.
But what I find most fascinating about her is her birthday: February 29th. There’s something tragic about being born on a day that only exists every four years, right? And it’s literally the day we recalibrate our understanding (or misunderstanding) of the passing of time. So when you listen to her story, you notice that she’s sort of perpetually caught in a limbo between two space-times. And then you begin to ask yourself: did she have to wait four years for her first birthday cake? Was she ten or was she two and a half when her grandfather raped her? And was she forty-six or was she eleven and a half when they executed her?
To answer your question, my poems very rarely stand alone. There’s always some research involved. But that’s a rewarding dimension of reading poetry, no? You learn. But not just literal, physical knowledge. Because when you learn about Aileen Wuornos’s life or watching Soraya Montenegro’s exaggerated, telenovela performance, you’re getting a much deeper meaning of the human condition. Who are they really? What pushes them? What pushes us? And how does my poetry push you to experience that?
Did you always know you wanted to be a writer? When did you start writing poetry and how has your work evolved?
At 5, I wanted to be a paleontologist. At 12, a psychiatrist. A year later, an actor.
Writing poetry didn’t come to me until I was 18. I’d always been good at writing in some way or another (school essays, stuff like that), but I started to really pay attention to it in college. At Pace in my sophomore year, I took an advanced poetry workshop (don’t ask me how the automated system let me enroll without any of the prerequisites). It was the first time I’d written poems. In the class there were juniors and seniors, some of whom were shady as hell and made everyone else feel insecure about their poetry. But the more I worked and wrote, the more I tapped a spring I didn’t know had even been there, and the more I fell in love. The more I felt I was good at it. And then my professor responded positively to it. And then my non-shady classmates supported my process. Then I began winning writing awards. A short time later I realized this is what I was meant to be.
You identify as a gay writer. What do you see as the particular challenges and opportunities for gay writers at this juncture in our collective history?
Yeah, I’m totally fucking gay and I live for it. I dance gay and walk gay and have sex with boys and write about it all. Besides being Latino, my gayness is the fulcrum of my poetry. And I know many gay writers are like, “Don’t pigeonhole me, I’m a writer that just happens to be gay!” But I’m totally cool with being compartmentalized. Please put me in those subgenres on Amazon, but also be wholly aware that I’m going to kill it. White, straight literature has nothing on me or any other LGBTQ POC writers for that matter. I’m not a writer who happens to be gay or Latino, I’m a writer BECAUSE I’m gay and Latino. So, Literary World please put me in any box you want, because I’ll proudly cover them in glitter and fill them with cilantro leaves.
You’re from D.C., but live in Costa Rica. How does where you’re from and where you live now influence your work?
I always say that the sounds of my childhood were sirens, gunshots, and the ice cream truck’s jingle. That’s because I grew up in a DC neighborhood that was pretty bad. A warzone most of the time. It was the height of the crack epidemic of the 90s. To put it into perspective, the year I was born, 479 people were murdered. But even so, that surrounding violence rarely stopped us kids (I was always the only non-Black kid) from playing TV tag in the middle of the street or eating popsicles and staying out until the streetlights came on. I definitely wouldn’t call it innocence, because we knew absolutely what was going on all around us. It was more like we were desensitized to it. But admittedly, I wasn’t raised in the projects. I was raised in a house in between two projects, so at night I got to go back to a house where I could be isolated from the brunt of what was happening. Many of my friends didn’t have that privilege. Some of my friends are dead, some in jail. But many are on their grind, living and working and creating just like I am. I want to give a shout-out to all of them. I want to send my love to them.
Right now in Costa Rica, I’m living with ghosts. The property my family lives on is about 70 years old, so a lot of shit has gone down. In the house itself, 4 people, including my father, were born, and 4 people have died. That makes for an incredibly intense spiritual presence. It’s gravitational and sometimes pretty disturbing. Sometimes you can see them in the mirrors and in the television sets or hear them roaming the halls at night. And they’ve woken me up a few times. Once I jumped out of bed to find that my covers and sheets had been perfectly folded at the foot of my bed. You know, shit like that. But, hey, that’s Latin America for you. It’s magical realism. It’s not just a genre. It’s real life.
What do you hope readers will take away from your work?
Hmm… that’s a tough one. If anything, I guess I want them to read my poetry, sit back and say, “What the fuck did I just read? How the fuck did I just feel?”
I want them to send me a Facebook message and ask if I’m doing alright. But I also want them to see something reminiscent of something going on within themselves. We share so, so, so many experiences, and many of us don’t know how to express them. The pain they cause. How seething it is, but sometimes how sweet it can be, you know? Maybe after reading, they’ll take a second and check in and ask themselves if they’re doing alright.
A sad poem is like a flame that cauterizes a wound. Yeah, it hurts, but if you don’t do it, it will never heal. And when you’re done, the scar it leaves is too beautiful not to admire.
Can you talk about your writing process and routine – do you write at a certain time of day? Certain location? How do you receive feedback on your work – do you participate in workshops?
My writing process is pretty simple: an image or line pops into my head, and I go from there. I begin writing until the poem tells me that it’s done. I rarely edit the content—the poems that you read were written in that one sitting—but afterwards, I do begin to play with its structure.
My debut collection I’d Rather Sink was written entirely in my creperie in Costa Rica. Between making crepes and dealing with customers, I’d sit with a cappuccino and write. Many times I’d completely ignore my duties as the owner and let the trance take me where it needed to go. A poem is a trance for me. You can’t take me away from it until it decides to let me go.
In terms of feedback, I don’t really ever have it—everyone around me speaks Spanish, and everyone I know from back home is busy with their lives. So I just work on the structure of the poem for a couple of weeks and I submit right away. If I’m getting too many rejections, I’ll revisit it. But if it gets an acceptance from somewhere I really dig, then I know for sure that it’s good.
What writers, poets, artists, or other thinkers have been important to your development as a writer?
I’m a cliché gay, Latin boy, so Lorca is at the very top of my list. Most importantly, he taught me new ways to interact with the moon, and how stunning her force is. But also he taught me to be wary of her sometimes. He understood that she gets pissed off, and when she does, just ride it out, kid, because you’ll learn something in the end.
Next would be Tite Kubo, the author & artist of the manga / anime Bleach. His dialogue is poetry, pure and simple. His characters, their pasts, and their philosophies flesh out such a rich, moving story which other mangas don’t really do. Bleach is existential and sad, so of course I’d love it.
My favorite poet right now is Aziza Barnes. Besides the fact that we’re homies to the 10th power, I think she’s brilliant. Her poetry is heart wrenching and so, so intelligent. I first met her at her first poetry slam at NYU when she was 18. I walked up to her and said, “You have more potential than anyone I’ve ever seen. You’re going to be so great.” Everything she says and writes inspires me. I want to be just like her when I grow up.
Others artists and writers and human beings include (but are not limited to): Roy Lichtenstein, Toni Morrison, my grandmother, the writers of María la del barrio, Reinaldo Arenas, Rihanna, Pedro Almodóvar, Gordon Ramsay cursing people out (it’s poetry, I swear), Dorian Corey’s interviews in Paris is Burning, and Blanche Devereaux’s sex monologues in The Golden Girls.
What are you working on now?
Two months ago my father died, so I’m just trying to work on surviving emotionally, you know? It’s intense and weird, and I know I’m not ready to write about it yet. It’s pushed all other projects of mine to the back burner. But death transforms your art… it’s a sort of mutation… my work will only grow from this point, hopefully regenerating the part of my heart that was bitten out. He was my biggest fan, even though he admitted to not understanding a word of any of my poems. All he understood was that he was proud of me. And that’s all I really needed.