Interview: Rigoberto González
June 9, 2009
Poet, novelist, critic, professor, Rigoberto González, whose life of serious literary activism resembles that of a whirling dervish, recently added a collection of short stories to his impressive résumé of published work. In Men Without Bliss men and women, gay and straight haunt the gritty towns and farmlands of southern California. It is clear in the subtle shifts and deftly maneuvered inner lives of these characters that the hand of the poet is never far from the page.
The first of his seven published books to date was a collection of poetry, So Often the Pitcher Goes to Water Until It Breaks, winner of the 1999 National Poetry Series; and poetry remains a constant with a third collection of poems, Black Blossoms, scheduled for release with Four Way Books in 2011. González has published a memoir and two children’s books. His first gay young adult novel will be out later this year. He is a critic/columnist for the El Paso Times, serves the National Book Critics Circle Award as board member and treasurer, and writes a blog on the NBCC website, Critical Mass, featuring news on small presses and interviews with their authors.
I’m not alone among readers to benefit from Rigoberto González’s largess. His attention to LGBT and minority writers extends even further to a reading series he curates periodically in New York, The Quetzal Quill. Add to all this a fulltime job as Associate Professor in the MFA writing program at Rutgers University, Newark, and you’re looking at a writer who doesn’t sleep – much. I snagged him on the run to answer a few questions about his new book and how he navigates this busy life.
In the story, “Cactus Flower,” the lettuce picker thinks, “What’s a kiss? The sound loneliness makes when it dies.” Implied in the title of your collection of stories, Men Without Bliss, is a longing to connect, and each delivers this in the startling ways the men in them do. Or don’t. The dead are often very real characters, a brother, a mother, a lover, who are clearly present but gone. How deliberate a strategy was this, to employ absence as a means to accept the role loss plays in everyday life and its potential for bliss?
I explore loss and grief is mostly everything I write–poetry, fiction, essays, and even in my children’s books. So it’s really no surprise that these themes embedded themselves in the prose as I was writing stories about men. The only deliberate strategy was that I wanted to explore the lives of males–gay and straight, Mexican, Chicano–and reveal a few of the many complicated layers of masculinity men have to navigate as members of a culture that doesn’t allow men to express vulnerability or weakness through emotion. Boys don’t cry, that sort of thing. I suppose that’s the biggest absence of all–the absence of a place, space or avenue for expressions of sadness. When there is no outlet to grieve, men are forced to internalize and suppress, therefore conversations with the dead, the shadows, the repressed true self begin to seep through the skin, and it hurts. The second deliberate strategy was to write about men who were lacking one parent or both. As an orphan myself, I had to feel my way through the dark as I grew older, never quite understanding what to do with that emptiness I carried with me since childhood. I wanted to create kindred spirits in these men, the orphans who grew up. Some manage well enough, others never pull themselves out of those feelings of abandonment and isolation. Men like that move through the world their entire lives unfulfilled, empty-handed and always aware of their incompleteness. These are not pretty stories, these are not happy stories, but sorrow, I have come to understand, glows with its own sense of beauty.
Q: Workers with names stitched into their uniforms, working-class characters like “Rapael,” (deliberately misspelled) and “Helen J,” and “Tony -R,” janitors, booksellers, motel clerks, form one of the threads, a link between episodes. Class, and in particular the Mexican, Chicano experience of it anchors them, yet somehow is not their subject. What draws you to a certain type of character (gay or straight, for instance) or a particular setting for your stories?
All of my fiction is set in the fictional Southern California landscape of Caliente Valley, very similar to the place where my family worked for many years as migrant farm workers. In that place I became aware of my family’s lot in life–poverty and hardship–always the fear of empty pockets and empty stomachs. This was not our promised land or our American dream, by any means, and no one was more surprised by this than me. Before we migrated from Mexico, my grandparents convinced us that we would be better off in the U.S., that earning dollars meant an opportunity for a comfortable life. Both my parents died not having realized that promise, and it breaks my heart that they never got to see me succeed in ways they never did. If anything, I get to witness the immigrant’s rude awakening over and over, as more of my relatives and their friends fail to move ahead. I do not set out to tell their specific stories, but I feel a responsibility to make these realities visible. I suppose the old adage is true: you can take the boy out of the neighborhood, but you can never take the neighborhood out of the boy. I’m frequently asked why I don’t write about professionals or about college professors. Maybe in the future. I haven’t finished my stay in the Caliente Valley. In fact, I’m still there for my series of young adult novels about groups of high school boys who are gay. The first one, The Mariposa Club, will be out by summer 2009. And it takes place in the Caliente Valley.
Q: You’ve published in so many forms including a memoir, Butterfly Boy. With such evident versatility, when you sit down to write, in the very early stages of an idea…what determines the direction it will take? Do you know, before you begin, if it will be a story? a poem?
Actually, yes. I do know before I write the first word whether it’s going to be a story or an essay or a poem. That decision is made in my brain, because plenty of thinking happens before the actual writing. There is no system to the journey, but the starting point is typically this: if I long to work with rhythms and music, I’ll set out to work on a poem; if I long to work with a character and his or her complicated history and relationships, I’ll invest in a story; if it’s an idea I want to unravel, it’s going to be an essay. I learned to distinguish one process from another by reading all those books all these years. I read about three books a week, and I’ve noticed that my mind has different expectations and engagements, depending on the genre. Sitting down to write means entering that zone–that poetry zone or prose zone–before diving into the language and its structures. I do know there are some genres that overlap, like the prose poem or flash fiction or what I call micro-prose–compressed nonfiction pieces that read like poems. I’ve been exploring these condensed genres lately because my time is so limited. I enjoy moving from one genre to the next–it keeps me from ever succumbing to writer’s block (in fact, it’s yet to happen to me). And the wonderful thing is that there is so much territory left for me to explore–playwriting, for example. I would love to explore that possibility sooner than later. I always thought that being a writer meant doing every type of writing, so I never felt compelled to declare myself “a poet” or “a novelist” or “a children’s book author.” If anything, my more popular identity label recently has been “critic,” because I write book reviews and serve on the board of the National Book Critics Circle. In the end, I just want people to say, “That Rigoberto–there was nothing he wouldn’t try.” A writer has to take risks. If I wanted to play it safe I wouldn’t have chosen this path. Ink and paper are dangerous.
Q: Rigoberto, in addition to the books you’ve written you are a prolific critic, full- time teacher, a curator of a reading series, and more. How does being so fully engaged as a literary citizen inform your creativity? And how on earth do you find time to write?
As you well know, the writer’s life is a very solitary life, and one way to keep from becoming lonely is to participate is the vibrant literary landscape that New York City has to offer. That’s why I chose to live here.
Anytime I want I can go to a reading, or host a reading, sit on a panel or sit with the audience. But I took it a step further and made this engagement a responsibility. It keeps me from feeling self-absorbed. I call myself an activist writer because I know how tough and sometimes demoralizing it is to create art and be met with indifference or silence. So any chance I can open a forum for others (especially other poets, writers of color or queer writers) I’ll do it, whether it’s offering a space to read, or reviewing a book or putting up an interview on the NBCC blog, Critical Mass. It’s the best way to build community and camaraderie as opposed to fueling competition and animosity. There’s already too much of that, and it’s so unnecessary and stupid. And somehow the writing also gets done. Maybe it’s hard for me to forget I’m a writer and that I have to write because I’m constantly on the move–organizing, mentoring, participating. I don’t have time to think about not having time because I use it all wisely. With a tight, super-busy schedule like mine, it has to be this way. I don’t have any regrets, though there are those moments I have to remind myself I am also a human being and need things like food, rest, and sleep. Yes, that’s the big ugly secret. I don’t sleep much. Lately I’m up until five in the morning, and I set my alarm for eight or nine. I do take a one hour nap in the afternoons, though. I don’t recommend this to anyone, by the way, that’s just where I am right now as I juggle teaching and writing. Once the semester’s over, I’m treating myself to at least six hours of sleep every night. No joke.