Ryan Sparks interviews poet J. Michael Martinez, author of Heredities and In the Garden of the Birdhouse
My interest in Martinez’s poetry began with an infatuation regarding its subversive brilliance. His works tactfully investigate the histories of words and the words of fragmented “histories.” His examination of constructed origins allows mythos to bleed into his poems, inviting readers to ponder the very anatomy of the gods. From the banishment of Topiltzin-Quetzalcoatl to Our Lady of Guadalupe, his poetry analyzes empowering myths that have been altered based on “one cobbler’s vision of paradise” (19). His poems also include those words whose meanings are lost or altered in translation, those words like “seeds dropping” from the mouth, and those words whose combinings allude to pasts that we are forced to swallow (5). Exploring the boundaries between myth, religion, and history, his poetry skillfully blends genres and incorporates original artworks, musical scores, definitions, letters, grim tales, chrestomathies, etc. Martinez’s poems also take part in gathering, reclaiming, and exhuming language. Further, they explore the processes of naming and discuss the names we can touch, and the names we can carve. Fucking with pronouns in a way that recognizes “our you,” his poetry transverses the distance between the body and the gaze and between the body and the self and between the body and the other, enacting an ongoing and memory-driven exploration of identity. It reveals the ways in which syntax becomes semiotic and phenomenological, allowing, you, the reader to walk through the gardens of an I-blind Genesis polluted by manufactured images.
Your works seem to present history as that which is fragmented, constructed through the enunciation of “truth,” and closely tied to identity. They appear to challenge normalized historical narratives in a way that reveals the importance of subverting the dominant culture as an oppressive force. How do you select historical accounts to include in your works? Do you believe challenging history is an essential aspect of contemporary art?
The historical artifacts I engage with are found through research into the general topics that compel me: art, poetry, philosophy. Research is deeply enjoyable to me: digging through archives and chancing upon historical flotsam that piques my intrigue is something I love to have occur. That is the general response.
More particularly, as I’ve become more historically consciousness, that is to say, developed an awareness that always sees the present as filtered through a historical lens, I see the “contemporary” as something spanning centuries. Reading the racist tracts, newspaper articles, pamphlets and postcards of the 19th century informs me of what SMALL steps have been made toward mending the racial division TODAY in the USA. The current attempts to ban travel from certain countries, to build a “wall” between Mexico and the US are merely the most recent attempts to alienate and justify US racism; reading through the archive, you find the same exact ideas and slogans, as if today were 1856. Combing through the archives, my language expands and is made more aware of its evolving usage through time, like the word, “White.”
When I use the word “White,” I use it knowing that it is only in the past fifty or so years that the word expanded to include many immigrant classes who were not “White” at the turn of the century (the Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans, etc.). I’d recommend everyone read Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson. This insightful work reveals that “Whiteness” is a historical process one undergoes. One is never “white,” one becomes “white.” If you read through works like Kyla Tompkins’ Racial Indigestion: Eating Bodies in the 19th Century or any of the works in visual studies concerning race, like Shawn Michelle Smith’s American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture, it is revealed how much effort was economically and ideologically invested in order to generate contemporary ideologies of “race.”
Further, it is vital that young writers and artists pursue a more expansive notion of the contemporary (not that is currently lacking, I’m merely promoting this ethos) to see how “great” works are economically and historically generated into such illusory cultural status. For example, reading Lawrence Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture reveals how Pound manipulated The Dial, Vanity Fair, and other journals into competing for the publication of Eliot’s Wasteland: he played off each journal’s vanity for the “new” in so they were willing to publish, promote and pay enormous sums for the poem without actually having read it. Their desire for higher circulation and revenue meant they were willing to buy a poem whose actual content was unknown and whose cultural import only became “important” because they were willing to pay vast sums for it and “to be first” to publish. All this while works like Hope Mirrlees’ Paris: A Poem were being published and critically ignored for various economic and misogynistic reasons.
I’ve begun to think of this manner of seeing as “The Long Eye.” When someone on the street yells at me to “Go back to Mexico!” I hear and see this racist act as being spoken not only by that racist asshole, but also generated from decades, if not centuries, of intentional ideological labor to produce a consciousness of such historical ignorance that the person shouting doesn’t realize how much they are tools.
Not that that asshole is innocent by any means, rather, that their manner of thinking is a product of a grander and viler violence against consciousness and political self-awareness. And, I believe, this is intentional: when I see K-12 schools popping up promoting certain “conservative” ideologies, when Arizona outlaws particular racialized studies, I see long term plans to institute particular ideologies into future generations. This isn’t conspiracy theory, this is truly long-term planning. I truly think if we want a just society, because it doesn’t exist here in the USA, democrats and activists need to start designing their own schools to promote more compassionate and inclusive ideologies to combat these archaic exclusionary educational practices. Compassion is not only being supportive and sensitive to the downtrodden, it is also actively combating in the field of education, politics, those who are oppressors. Further, it is vital to ACTUALLY BE ABLE TO IDENTITY THE OPPRESSOR. And, often, in academia and in MFA programs, our teachers aren’t the best to handle those situations: what training does an MFA teacher have to deal with racism/sexism in the classroom? Networking with social justice workers and therapists who have decades of experience and training to ameliorate and educate is vital for any college department. After all, when it comes to conflict, there is nothing worse than a wannabe messiah looking to promote their own ego.
Your works seem to encourage bringing light to those voices that are often silenced within society. How do you suggest creating spaces for those voices to be heard both inside and outside of academia?
As an aside, oftentimes, there are folks outside and in academia, who condemn “the academic.” It is as if condemning and silencing an entire cultural class isn’t itself discrimination and completely ignorant.
Firstly, I am thinking of your question inside an actual classroom: everyone should recognize they are not alone. When I was pursuing my MFA at George Mason I sought out the Latino cultural groups, I sought out those justice workers who had experience and wisdom. While many/most MFA teachers (teachers in general) might be good people, sometimes, they aren’t the best at comprehending a racialized situation (even those who identity as a POC). At this point, most universities have ethnic and racial studies groups: join them and be critical, ask them tough questions, recognize an “elder” really means someone is older, not that they actually have wisdom. Learn that trust has to be earned, not freely given.
Outside of the classroom, where most of my education really happens, I’d recommend starting writing groups, where people come together, once or twice and week, and write together. Writing is often seen as a solitary practice and nothing could be further from the truth. Writing is always a communal activity.
Volunteer: work with the homeless, volunteer with Habitat for Humanity, get out there outside of your comfort zone and be with the broader community who are truly engaged (not simply engaged at a distance from their privileged perch). If you are part of a writing collective, encourage them to get out and do social justice work like volunteering. One thing I’ve noticed is how certain writing collectives seem more geared toward careerist activities like “how to get published in such and such journal” or “how to get a book.” If you want to give voice to the unheard, the silenced, learn to listen: go to those who truly are silenced economically, who don’t have a home, who live desperately, and practice something more than language, practice expanding your humanity.
In my readings, it seems that your poetry explores the violences associated with the processes of naming. More specifically, how names are tied to the bodily, can be polluted over time, and are often given by those in positions of power. How do you see the processes of naming functioning in recent identity politics?
“Naming” is always about power: power over language, power over bodies, power over economic opportunity. I can only reply to this by citing an incident that happened to my niece when she was seven. She was at school and another little girl asked her if she was “Mexican.” That other little girl, according to my niece, wasn’t being aggressive or discriminatory, but rather, was her friend and was merely asking a question (as children do). My niece is a humble and quiet girl. When she was telling me, she said she took a moment and then replied, “I’m Martinez.” When she said this, she lifted her chin in pride. I could only say one thing: “Fuck Yes.”
For me, there is such wisdom and genius in her reply. She tied herself to her particular life, she didn’t participate in generalizing discourses that exclude or force her to get caught up in arguments that dehumanize her own immediate being, she related herself to what was most intimate to her identity: her immediate family and our experience. I don’t like easy “naming” practices of any sort. I like problematizing any “name” that essentializes. I wish people would not alienate their own immediate lives in the practice of identity: for sure, identity is a practice, it is not some mythic ontological center. Identity is always a practice performed toward and undergirding the world.
Oddly enough, my father is a retired extension agent for the University of Kentucky who graduated with an emphasis in horticulture. So, plant imagery and symbolism has played a large role in my own writing. What events, if any, sparked your interest in plant imagery, as I feel it is a prominent aspect of your work?
This is a great question and one I don’t know if I can answer directly: I can say, when I was a child, my grandparents owned a farm in Pierce, Colorado. Many of the weekends of my childhood were spent there with them. There was always work to do on the farm, and they were always busy. When I could, I would sneak away and wander the fields: walking through the corn, if corn had been planted, and letting my hands cinematically brush the stalks; if squash or lettuce had been planted, I would stare at the emerging plant. I would spend hour and hours alone wandering my grandparent’s field and neighboring fields. There was a beautiful solitude practiced then. Later, when I was eighteen, I was ill and had to spend a lot of time alone and indoors: for hours I would stare at the trees outside my bedroom window, I would find patterns in the grass and imagine worlds living there. The world of plant life, I suppose, has always been an aspect of community for me because it/they provided companionship and relationship when I was most alone (not lonely, but alone).
Many of your poems seem to expose the potential for origin narratives to be fabricated, restrictive, lost, or subsumed by popular interpretations. With that being said, do you ever receive criticisms for your investigation of origin stories? If so, how do you normally respond?
Origin narratives are fabricated, after all, they are “narratives,” that is, attempts to describe/narrate an event—all told from certain perspectives that have material sites of production. This question returns to the earlier question about identity and the first question when I brought up Eliot and Pound: the origin of The Wasteland is often caught up in its language or Pound’s editing; what is left out is how its mythos was materially produced. In encountering any mythos, I think it’s easy to sentimentalize. However, I’m eternally curious and, more often than not, after researching, I end up finding how that mythos was produced from certain economic, material conditions. Again, I’m skeptical of anyone or institution claiming an essentialized position: when that occurs, I think you’ll find exclusionary practices occurring for the sake of power, reputation, some messiah complex, or some ego issue dealing with identity. I’m willing to engage in any conversation and I’m more than willing to ask myself and the person I’m dialoging with difficult questions. My poems are, first and foremost, ways I’ve crafted to reply to difficult and uncomfortable questions I’ve posed to and for myself. And, sometimes, I’m skeptical of my own responses.
Building off of the previous question, your works seem to suggest that language has the power to transform us into divine beings of sorts, who can construct reality using words. Further, your works appear to explore the power of language in relation to the body. What cautions would you give upcoming writers in regards to the power of language to alter reality and others’ lived experiences?
Language aids in constructing perception. A more expansive vocabulary will, in my mind, lend itself to a broader worldly perception, to a vaster compassion. When I use the word “vocabulary” I mean those categories of identification we call “genre,” I mean systems of religion, I mean learning how to code, I mean learning. Period. I would advise any artist to view aesthetic boundaries as invitations to transgress and evolve. Employing language in any way is, as 20th century theory has thoroughly explored, an ideological method and practice: expanding one’s language necessarily expands ones ideological perspective (aesthetically, politically, etc.) and, as consequence, one’s perceptions. Understandably, it can be difficult to be so receptive: I’ve had to face my own demons, contradictions, etc. because of this. However, one thing I say to any workshop or class I lead, I see writing as ALWAYS, first, a practice of self-awareness; secondly, I remind them, publishing work is a very different beast than the act of writing itself. I have poetry I won’t publish because, for me, writing is a method to carve into and explore from under the difficult questions that plague me; these private explorations are my own and poetry is one medium amongst many I use to expand my own awareness of this beautiful world. The poems I publish I collect into “books” because they themselves organize themselves into a broader work responding to questions I may not even know I am posing to myself.
That said, I deeply encourage young writers to NOT get caught up in careerist mentalities or make false idols of awards/journal or book publications. I encourage upcoming writers to see that language is a site for reflection and interrogation of the self. I would encourage them to always be wary of their ego and confusing “self-identity” with egoistic desires/drives for recognition. I would encourage young writers to NOT get caught up in the game of “needing” to attend certain schools, attending certain conferences in order to feel accomplished or perceived as a “legitimate” writer. I feel these institutions are products made to serve the practice of writing, however, they should never be perceived as THE legitimizing institutions. If they portray themselves as such, then they are corralling power around their own center and, fundamentally, against the very open and inclusive ethic of the metaphor: to bring unlike things together without rationalizing-exclusionary judgment. When someone judges, “that is a ‘good’ poem,” I feel an ethical responsibility to ask in return, “according to whose morality or ethic?” Maybe that is the punk in me.
I really like that your upcoming video game, The Invention Machine, focuses on memoir, memory, childhood, temporality, and uncovering historical accounts of racial violence. Participating in historical reclamation can be tricky, or so I image. What about the gaming platform yields itself to this aim?
Historical reclamation occurs everyday, in rap music, in poetry, in various mediums; I think it may appear tricky, however, this may be one of its pleasures: the challenge. The gaming platform is perfect for this aim as it allows so much agency to be given over to the player, the one who, in this platform, undergoes the act of historical reclamation with the antagonist in my game. The ability to choose is foundational to the gaming platform and to RPGs in particular. These days, from The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt to the latest iteration of Zelda, an open environment where the player undergoes the world and difficult moral decision making is coming to be the norm. In such an environment of gaming, questions of race, explicit questions, are often couched safely in metaphor as questions of species: orc vs human, elf vs human, etc.. Dragon Age: Origins situates a class of Elves as former slaves of humanity, living in ghettos of the cities. While couching the question of race in such metaphorical terms makes the question more palatable, it also allows for it to be just as easily dismissed.
I think there is a way to speak of race directly while also allowing for the pleasures of the gaming platform: action, roleplaying, choice, rewards, etc. You can find indie games dealing with real questions of politics, such as Papers, Please, when it engages the very idea of immigration and border crossings.
For me, it was deeply important, in the process of generating the game, to locate myself in the narrative of race and its invention. Just the other day, I did a reading in Pueblo, CO and, after, grabbing dinner with fellow poets, we were rudely approached and interrupted for racial reasons. After, we spoke of not living in fear. For me, writing and creating the game was a method to directly engage my fears. I also wanted to make sure that any player of the game realized that the risks and encounters of the game stemmed from real situations with real consequences and emotional repercussions.
For example, one level is based off a poem by Carmen Gimenez Smith (whose work I’ve written critical essays on, which are also inside the game): the poem in question is one regarding museums: the speaker goes to a museum and deals with people who are not used to the exuberance of Latinas enjoying art work; those people are the ones who promote a kind of church-like experience, not knowing how this custom originates from very real material and historical considerations. The level plays like this: the player has to be quiet as they move through the level collecting key objects or the museum goers, like zombies, will notice them and attack them. The player is given choices that may upset the other museum goers or may placate them; however, each moral decision decides which way the rest of the game will play out. This kind of action opens up and reveals, at least in my mind, how this cultural custom of silent engagement with art is actually one with racial ideological ties and is actually one of many ways to appreciate art in museums.
Gaming mechanics can be used in a way to explore and interrogate our culture in so many amazing ways, ways that hit home more effectively than simply reading a critical essay on a topic.
Did you do all the artwork involved with your game? I found it particularly badass. If so, how difficult is the process of game construction, especially in terms of visuals?
I did all the art, programming and music: pretty much, whatever you see, read or hear, I made. The art is original and, sometimes, was drawn/painted when I was a teenager. I’ve saved most of the visual art I’ve done over the years, thinking I would employ it in some future project. I had no idea I’d actually make a game where that art could be animated. I’ve always wanted to find a medium where I could explore and generate work from all the art forms I practice: drawing/painting, music, writing, etc..
Game construction can be difficult. It really depends on your vision. Luckily, I’ve been doing graphic design for nearly two decades so I didn’t have to spend time learning Adobe Creative Suite or other design programs. In terms of visuals, learning how to animate and code certain actions took many months. I used the UNITY platform and its Mecanim animation tool is amazing. Honestly, UNITY is a fantastic system and you can do an infinite number of things with it. What took time was learning to code so certain animations happened on certain moments or when certain controls were employed. Keep in mind, I was also making music, drawing, and adding all of these to the game, in addition to writing the narrative out. I’m still working, however, now, I got a good handle on all of these mechanics and things come much more easily. When I first started, however, I really did start from scratch.
Fortunately, or unfortunately, I’m a bit obsessive compulsive and drive myself to pretty high standards, so I spent a number of months pulling fourteen-hour days learning as much as I could so I could make the game I envisioned. Recently, a friend of mine commented that she was blown away by what I’d done, however, when I first showed her an 8-bit version a number of months prior, she was wondering what the hell I was doing with my time. In terms of learning game design, there are many helpful books out there to support the budding game designer. One book in particular stands out: The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. The book provides a number of tactics for game development and poses many important questions a game designer should ask themselves when they are developing a new piece of work.
Also, what’s your favorite old-school platformer? Mine is Lode Runner.
I have to admit, I love Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest. In fact, the main protagonist of my game, Moneo, uses his bowtie in the same way Belmont uses a whip; while Moneo’s weapons change over time per his skill levels, I wanted to allude to that game (I loved it as a kid). Further, I adore the original Megaman. Thanks again for taking the time to interview!