Pablo Miguel Martínez is an award-winning poet whose poetry and prose have been published in the North American Review, San Antonio Express-News, Texas Poetry Review, and many other publications and periodicals.
His first book of poetry, Brazos, Carry Me, received the 2013 PEN Southwest Book Award for Poetry. His chapbook, Cuent@ (Finishing Line Press), was published in 2015. Martínez’s literary work has received support from the Alfredo Cisneros Del Moral Foundation and the Artist Foundation of San Antonio. He is also a co-founder of CantoMundo, a national retreat-workshop for Latina/o poets.
In addition to his writing and work in the nonprofit sector, Martínez has taught English and creative writing at San Antonio’s own Our Lady of the Lake University, Houston’s Lone Star College, and the University of Louisville. His work often revolves around lives that don’t fit the standard mold of the society they’re living in, including Latinx and LGBTQIA characters. Martínez was the keynote speaker at Gemini Ink’s second annual Writers Conference on “Writing for Change,” which took place in July.
His thought-provoking speech, titled “Change is As Change Does: The Macro and The Micro of It,” kicked off the conference’s Saturday programming. A San Antonio native and influential figure in the Texas and national literary landscape, Martínez recently sat down with Gemini Ink’s Zachary Durham to answer questions about his writing process and sources of inspiration.
Gemini Ink: When and why did you start writing poetry? Did you grow up around it?
Pablo Miguel Martínez: I came to poetry – or vice versa – rather late. I read it casually during my undergrad years, but it never spoke to me in the way it does now. I wasn’t ready to receive its messages, I suppose. As it turns out, that required a lot more living than I was able to bring to the experience of poetry back in those more supple years. I didn’t grow up with it – there were only a very few books in the working class household that nurtured me. But my sister and I were exposed to various registers of language, both Spanish and English, in that loving, but often difficult house. The agility that required has served me well; I’m profoundly grateful for it.
I returned to complete my MFA as a “non-traditional student,” which means I was considerably older than most of the other students in my cohort at Texas State University. Thanks to the wonderful, generous, and supremely gifted faculty with whom I had the privilege of working, I strengthened my relationship with poetry, to the extent that these days, when I write prose, I feel as if I’m cheating on a lover.
GI: What would you say inspires you to write the most? World events, nature, personal experience, or something else entirely?
PMM: It varies, radically so. Most often it’s what I suppose is referred to as human behavior. How we treat or mistreat each other, whether on a private or personal level, or on the international stage, nation against nation, which when I think about it, comes down to person against person. Reading poetry is invariably inspiring. I’m an expert eavesdropper, so overhearing snippets of conversation also inspires.
Also, I love reading about historical figures; I imagine their private lives, far from the glare of history – that’s another source of inspiration. Right now I’m working on a memoir, so my past, my dysfunctional family, and what Robert Hayden refers to as “the chronic angers” of our house are all very much at the forefront of my thinking.
GI: Do you have any secret rituals you perform before you get started: writing tics, habits, special ceremonies? How important is it to you to have a sense of sameness about your writing routine? Do you have any special charms, talismans, or souvenirs in your workspace? What and Why?
PMM: I wish I had those. I won’t say it’s entirely random, but when the muse descends I pay close(r) attention. I try to take notes when something strikes me as potential DNA for a poem or a paragraph because some days my mind is that proverbial sieve. Because life is pulling me in too many directions right now, I’m apt to write during thin slivers of time. In other words, large chunks of time devoted to writing and revising are a rare luxury at the moment, as I imagine they are for most poets and writers.
GI: What’s your favorite piece of writing advice?
PMM: Write. Just write. Don’t talk about doing it. Just do it, to borrow “good” ad copy.
GI: What themes or symbols do you find keep emerging in your work? Why?
PMM: Well, in her exceptionally generous citation for the 2013 PEN award, Dallie Clark wrote: “At times, we may wonder how Martínez writes, wielding certainly at times a poetic restraint, without his own heart shattering into a million inked words on the paper before him.” I hesitate to write this, but more often than not, my heart is shattered – that’s a place from which I write. And at the risk of coming across as a puddle of emotion, I’ll also admit that often I cry openly when I write. I don’t want to come off as mawkish, but most days the feelings that help inform my writing are that intense. Some might label it “honest” or “authentic,” but I see it as a momentary release of all that’s in my reservoir.
So to answer you more succinctly, the one theme that keeps returning in my work is pain. This means that I also make concerted efforts to seek out the beauty that surrounds me in measure equal to the pain…most days. I find it in nature, which never fails to astonish me.
GI: You’re a co-founder of CantoMundo. What did you envision for this organization that you couldn’t find anywhere else?
PMM: As a co-founder, this means that it was a shared vision, one that four other poets and I felt was long overdue. Back when we started what is still a flourishing, dynamic gathering of Latinx poets, we looked to sister organizations, such as Cave Canem and Kundiman, similar organizations for and by African American and Asian American poets, respectively. There was – and still is – a great need for these empowering gatherings. They’re important sources of support and builders of community.
We started CantoMundo as an I-35 phenomenon, that is, three of the co-founders were based in San Antonio and two were in Austin. Today, it’s based in New York City and, as part of the Poetry Coalition, an alliance of more than 20 poetry nonprofits, recently received funding from the Ford Foundation. Talk about a dream fulfilled!
GI: You once said that your work “is proudly, unabashedly, unapologetically” rooted in who you are, and that much of your work is informed by your identity politics. Your poetry and prose often depict the lives of LGBTQIA characters. How do you think you and other contemporary authors are changing the conversation on what it means to be LGBTQIA in the United States today? What new voices are coming into their own as LGBTQIA writers?
PMM: It would be much too grandiose and deceitful on my part to take credit for any change that queer letters help effect either in the literary landscape or in the larger society. That said, I hope I’m doing my part to move things along. For example, there’s been a strong, if not long tradition of queer literature in this country – some of it overtly queer and some coded, usually owing to challenging realities of the time. I am grateful to those literary forebears who wrote about same-sex love during times when expressions of such love were illegal. So I am proud to be part of a community of poets and writers who are creating a body of work that is unapologetically rooted in our lives.
However, when we talk about writing the lives of queer people of color, we still have a long way to go before we reach that destination known as full equality. Full equality within communities of color and full equality in the larger LGBTQIA community. While our gaze is oriented inwardly, we must also cast the gaze outwardly, lest we get pushed farther in the margins, which is a wretched place to be.
The fact that you have asked your question openly and that I am responding in similar fashion is telling: We’ve come a long way, Zachary! But there are still many barriers to break down and many glass ceilings to shatter, so let’s keep moving, I say.
In some ways I see the LGBTQIA community – and here I use the term “community” advisedly – in the U.S. at a fascinating crossroads: Thanks to the tireless work of many activists we’ve achieved some great things, in terms of greater equality and rights. But those very successes are driving wedges between segments of the community. I think back to a conversation that came up regularly within my relatively small circle of lesbian and gay friends during my New York years: Is the gay rights movement a sexual revolution or a civil rights movement? As if the two streams of action were mutually exclusive. And yet, I think this tension is important — it keeps the dialogue robust, which means we sometimes have to engage with those who hold views diametrically opposed to our own.
GI: It seems that much of your nonprofit work focuses on Latino/a people and their place in this country and the world. What have you found most fulfilling or challenging about this work?
PMM: I would do anything for my gente, mi raza. If I score any success, regardless of its source or effect, I do it for/because of them. And yes, sometimes community-grounded work is tough, which is probably the reason it’s so often compared to working through family dynamics. I love that the work keeps me ever mindful of what has yet to be done. The statistics can be grim and overwhelming – we need look no further than San Antonio, [one of] the country’s largest Hispanic-majority city. And though I cry – There I go again – when I see or think about the struggles of my own family and all the families of Mexican descent like them, I also get angry. I’m infuriated at the historical and contemporary ways raza is/has been taken gross advantage of. Sometimes it’s not only the toxic stew of ism’s that hurts us, it’s the ignoring and disregard for everyone’s humanness – the looking past us – that angers and saddens me. And at this moment, hopefully a fleeting one in U.S. history, that hatred toward anyone who is “other” is officially sanctioned, makes the struggle all the harder, and makes resistance all the more essential.
GI: Finally, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your next project? What are you working on right now?
PMM: Thanks to a generous, perfectly-timed grant from the National Association of Latino Arts and Culture, I am working on a mixed-genre memoir. I’m also grateful to my dear friend, Bárbara Renaud González, who helped guide me through a recent memoir workshop at Gemini Ink. She knows how to light a fire under writers.