After their rehearsal for their City of Asylum reading, Roy Guzmán was kind enough to sit down and chat  about poetry, language, and what words mean in times of strife. Guzmán is a Honduran-born, Miami-raised poet based out of Minneapolis. They came down to City of Asylum this September for the Jazz Poetry festival, partnering their poetry with the music of Mara Rosenbloom & Flyaways, along with fellow poets Natalie Scenters-Zapico and Toi Derricotte. Their poems have been published in Poetry Magazine and referenced in The Los Angeles Times. “Restored Mural for Orlando” is a chapbook of theirs published in 2016, and their debut book, “Catrachos,” is slated to come out on May 5th, 2020. 

Writing With Surprise

What does your upcoming book mean to you?

The book means many different things. The title is Catrachos, which is a nickname for Hondurans. The book deals with colonization, machismo, environmental injustices, gender violence, child abuse, policies that have affected me in the U.S. and that have affected my people in a larger sort of scale too. I want to be able to use language as a way to awaken people, to remind people, “This is your history. These are the things that you did not know affect you, but they have in fact been affecting you.”

There’s a section in the book that takes the State of the Union speeches from George W. Bush, and it starts doing erasures from these speeches in which he is conflating the word “terrorist” with being an immigrant. There’s another poem in the book that’s written in the form of a Catholic mass, and it asks, “How is it possible for all these sex crimes to happen, and to continue to be committed by Catholic priests, both in the U.S. and in Latin America?” I’m trying to deconstruct all these forms of violence essentially.   

I’m planning on a book tour. I know particularly here in Pittsburgh, a lot of Honduran refugees have ended up here, and so even if they don’t speak English, I’m trying to find ways to translate that work. Being in conversation with women, being in conversation with LGBT people, finding ways to talk about this work with kids is something important I’ve thought about as well.  

In your line of currently published work, your sestina poems were really striking to me. Since the format of the poem lets you repeat the same words in a different order for each stanza, I was surprised that the lines were ones you found elsewhere, especially when I saw your list of recognition for the sources. Where did all these inspirations come from?     

They’re called cento-sestinasloose cento-sestinas, which basically means that the sestina form isn’t as fixed as the conventional sestina is. The whole poem is made up of lines from other people. I basically combined these two forms and I ended up with these, like, creatures that were really eye-opening for me. At first, the process was thinking about words in a constellation that kind of spoke to me and my background, and then trying to find lines in different newspaper articles or songs that sort of have those words, and see what would happen if I brought these under the same umbrella. It was very haunting. 

There’s one poem that I wrote, that was supposed to be inspired by my grandmother, my maternal grandmother’s story, and I just ended up with a poem that I… was shocked by. And these were all lines by other people. I wanted to kind of surprise myself and play with this form. They just became exercises where, if I feel like I’m stuck and I don’t have some kind of inspiration, I can put these together. It’s almost like making a shake. Like a poetry creative shake, and you put these ingredients in there, and then you see what you find. 

You’ve written a series of poems called “Queerodactyl,” which is especially striking since each poem in the series is given the same name. Is there a story behind that name? Where does “Queerodactyl” came from? 

So I was having breakfast with one of my exes, and I don’t know how this came up, but we were joking around and he threw out the word, “Pteroqueer.” We were laughing at that, at queering dinosaurs, queering creatures, and things like that. Then I’m like, “Queerodactyl!” At some point during the drive home I said, “I’m getting something about this name, and I’m getting memories around this word. I’m going to go home and challenge myself to write a poem in that space.” 

I went home and wrote the first poem. It’s going to be included in the book, but it’s not the first “Queerodactyl” poem in there. I wrote that poem and it just developed further into more. There are some poems that were inspired by “Queerodactyl” that I named along with the rest of the series, and then I realized nope, they don’t belong in this sort of sequence.

I thought about the Queerodactyl poems as both existing within their own world and sometimes opening cracks into our ordinary world. In that sense, I kept thinking about anachronisms, alterity, portals, contamination, and a story within a story. In the debut collection that’s coming out next year I have about, maybe, 13 “Queerodactyl” poems. I’ve written more than that, but I have not included them. I don’t know if those other Queerodactyl poems will ever see the light of day. I might have to start thinking about “Queerodactyl” B-sides. Maybe I’ll do that at some point after the book comes out. 

Bilingual Writing

Looking at all of the poetry you’ve had published, have all of your poems been in English?

Yeah, they’ve all been in English. I have written poems in Spanish though. That’s a whole separate space for me. I’ve been asked if I want to translate my own book, and I could, because part of my background is in literary translation, but that scares me. I have thought about having a translator. Maybe Marco Antonio Huerta, the same translator who translated the “Restored Mural for Orlando” poem and chapbook, could also translate my debut book. 

I feel like there are wounds that I feel — I know this is going to sound really messed up — that I feel more comfortable talking about in a language that’s not Spanish. The minute I start talking about these wounds in Spanish it feels much more intimate, more personal, and… more excruciating. 

What does it mean in your poems, to have small phrases and pieces be said in Spanish? Because at times you intentionally don’t explain what that means for the English audiences. 

That’s something that’s been very important to me. In readings and conversations that I’ve had, I’ve talked about the importance of not always having to translate your own culture. And bringing in the Spanish, sometimes I bring it in exclusively for the sound. I’ve been very cognizant of making sure that in leaving Spanish phrases, I’m trying to go for a certain feeling, I’m trying to go for a certain audience in the poem. 

Even if I tried to quote unquote write about my past, all of it, in English, there are things I will never be able to speak about in English without resorting to Spanish. Then there are things that feel like they’re untranslatable. There’s been a lineage of poets who don’t italicize the Spanish when it comes up in their poems. They all want to honor the fact that if we are being truthful to how we think and process the world, it’s disingenuous to say that we’re always only processing things in English. I’m definitely processing things in Spanish and in Spanglish. Sometimes even in French in my dreams.

And now that you’re talking to me about these moments in my work, I think they dofeel like wounds. They feel like I’m writing and speaking in English, and suddenly you get this access to these wounds that almost feel like they can’t be translated. 

Words for Humanity

You’ve mentioned in previous interviews how following the Orlando shooting, brown and black queer voices were not being lifted. Now that you have this chapbook out, “Restored Mural for Orlando”, how do you feel about its existence in this space? 

On the one hand, I want to believe that somehow the work that I’ve done along with other poets of color has done something in terms of advocacy and visibility. I want to believe that everyone, specifically queer trans people of color who wrote about Orlando, that our words became actions. Yet we continue to have this gun violence. So in terms of what happened in Orlando and afterwards, I think a lot of the work that I’ve done has not just been on the page. It’s been asking people how they’re doing, how they’re surviving, how we can help each other. Then making sure that if we have organizations that are out there, on the line trying to protect us, that those institutions continue to get the support they need. 

When you have this year… I don’t know if it’s been 17 or 18 black trans women murdered, it reminds me that this is an ongoing struggle. That poem couldn’t have solved all of these problems. Even though my pronouns are they/them and even though in my heart I feel very much nonbinary, trans people and trans people of color have it much worse. I had the privilege to receive money to then support trans writers. To buy trans peoples’ books, venmo trans writers, buy them a meal, make sure that I’m supporting their survival for today. It’s an ongoing fight. It’s not over, it’s far from over. 

What do you think the power of words are in currently frightening times like these? What is the strength of words that we have?

Coming from Latin America, people have been murdered for speaking out against the government, against repression, and more. So I’m always reminded that it is a privilege to be able to write something down, to create, or have a book come out, and then have people share that. There’s a lot of poets who have spoken about this idea of what words can do in times of crisis. They involve reminding ourselves of our humanity. However we define that. Yes, we need to be taking care of people, and making sure that they’re alive and that they have the means to think about a future, but even the idea of imagining a future… that’s where words come in. Now that you have fed yourself today, what is your plan for tomorrow?        

I absolutely believe that every time I’m in that space of words and language, I’m also in the space of action. As I am communicating an idea, that means that I’m also in communion with this other person. Language is at the heart of love-making, is at the heart of how we imagine new forms of love, new forms of liberation. The fact that I can talk about they/them pronouns and talk about this nonbinary identity. It is because of words that I am able to do that. 

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