Eduardo C. Corral by Yezmin Villarreal

Eduardo C. Corral on the soundtrack to his poetry and his book, Slow Lightning.


Photo by Amit Chattopadhyay.

Eduardo C. Corral reminds us that when we listen for poetry, it is memory we hear. The “truth” won’t help you write a poem—Emily Dickinson’s famous dictum, “tell the truth, but tell it slant,” applies on each and every page in the mind of Corral. The more autobiographical a poem sounds, the more fictional it is, he says, because it is important to kick yourself out of your usual language habits. This conversation reminded me that poetry doesn’t always sit with or in language; the poets we enjoy and the communities and movements they are associated with are touchstones for poets to enter into the very community of writers they study. The visual iconography of our lives is just as much of a companion to our words and their associative meanings as is a book by our favorite writer.

If we look back at its history, Arizona has never been a place with easy access or privilege to those outside the norm, and yet Slow Lightning does not impose itself like the thorny geography and history of the native state that inspired many of the poems. The collection is both an ode and a Dear John letter to it’s author’s homestate of Arizona.

Yezmin Villarreal Rivera Slow Lightning sets a soundtrack through the sounds of violins, guitars, accordions, and corridos. Are you a musician? What is it about music and instruments that complements your writing?

Eduardo C. Corral I am not a musician. It is one of the skills I wish I had—to play an instrument. I took a year of high school piano but I don’t remember a single thing from that year. I do remember one thing. My teacher had perfect pitch, so each time I played piano, his face contorted in pain. So that tells you right away that I had no musical gifts as a performer of any kind of instrument. (laughter) It’s always been one of my biggest regrets.

I grew up in a working-class family in Southern Arizona. For many working-class families, music is one of the richest treasures they have access to. It’s cheaply available, on the radio or on T.V. We came from a Mexican-American background so we were always listening toRancherasBanda music, and Corridos. I remember watching these bands on TV on Sundays—they were all lip-syncing, but I didn’t know that as a child. The cameras always panned on the instruments, and I was always stunned when it was focusing on a wind instrument, a string instrument, or a brass instrument—guitars, cellos, violins, tubas, and French horns. I remember those images—they stayed with me growing up. I loved how they looked. They are beautiful, sculpted objects.

I remember something from those days very vividly—I must have been 12 or 13 and flipping through channels. I was watching an older woman playing a mandolin, and it was during the time in middle school that I was learning about art. I saw her holding the mandolin tenderly and I thought, Oh, that looks like a pietá. I remember making that leap, like, Oh, a woman holding a mandolin looks like a pietá.

YVR Picking up on metaphor?

ECC Yes, Virgin Mary holding her child, a Christ-figure, that’s a pietá. The song she was playing was very mournful, so it fit with that leap I made. That was my first leap into this figurative landscape, like, Oh, things can become more than what they are through the imagination.

YVR Your original manuscript had musical instruments in the title, right?

ECC They both did. The working title for the longest time was Asleep Inside An Old Guitar. I worked on this book for nine years and I got sick of looking at it on the screen. I said, I just can’t look at you anymore. It only gestures to one kind of element of the work—the surrealist kind of work, the folkloric elements here and there, so it was a bad title. I sent it off with another, even worse title—Border with Violin. When it got the Yale Younger Poets Prize, it was announced with that title. The second title had the same issue—it only gestures to one element in the work, the border gaze, so that was problematic. When I first talked to Carl Phillips, one of the first things he said to me was, Love the work, but we might have to work on the title. So we worked out the title.

YVR How did you come up with Slow Lightning?

ECC Well, the way we came to it is really odd. I said, Well, I’m struggling here, how about you give me some title suggestions? The first title Carl suggested was Black Petals because it comes from the lines, “When I’d yawn,/he’d pluck black petals out of my mouth,” in the opening poem, “Our Completion: Oil on Wood: Tino Rodriguez: 1999.” He said each poem could be like a black petal placed in the mouth of the reader or plucked out of the mouth of the reader, but my friend Rigoberto Gonzalez had a forthcoming book that very same year calledBlack Blossoms. His second suggestion was Slow Lightning, and when he told me that over the phone, I paused and then he said to me, You don’t like it, huh? I paused because my MFAthesis title at Iowa nine years before was titled Stars Over the Slowest Lightning. He had no way of knowing that. I took it as an omen. I told Carl that and he said, I think we should go with that. It makes sense as a title because the speakers and the poems always have a yearning, a longing for something to be struck by either the touch of another human being, epiphany, truth, or beauty.

YVR You have said that the poems in your Master’s thesis manuscript made you blush because they clung to memory, and they were like photo captions of memories. You spent nine years writing Slow Lightning. How did your poems transition from making you blush to publishing your first book? Do they still make you blush?

ECC I am a very slow writer. What made me especially slow is I was trying to write poems that would describe photographs from memory. I forced the language to tell the “truth,” to stick with what I knew, which is a terrible, terrible way to tackle poetry because it leaves a great element out—the imagination, the music, and it forces language to do something instead of listening to it. This was my biggest breakthrough about four or five years after graduate school. I sat down with a phrase in my mind, wrote it down, and just unpacked it. I played with the syllables, the vowels, the consonants, and then something happened. I wrote another interesting noun, an adjective, and I followed that and it led to a line. Then I followed that line and it led to a stanza that I was happy with. So that little moment showed me that it’s not the subject matter at all. The subject matter is secondary; language is king. You have to follow the language, the music, and it’s a long, complex process. It doesn’t come to you quickly. Those first poems actually came pretty quickly because I knew what I wanted to write about and I had some skill with image-making, metaphor, and similes. I knew how to write a poem in graduate school, and it looked and sounded alright, but there was no spark, no soul, no mystery, and no music.

And if there’s no music, there’s no poetry. I made a huge leap after graduate school, which no one taught me about in graduate school. You listen to the words, to the music inherent in words.

YVR Is it like that feeling you get when you read a writer you’ve never read before and experience language in a way that creates a new opening in your mind about the possibilities of language?

ECC Yes, it sounds uncanny and mysterious, but you know, we are all sponges. We are absorbing all the language around us. All the language we’ve read. All the language we’ve spoken and the language that’s been spoken to us throughout our lives. When we actually sit down and are attentive to words, to language, all of it comes. All the language comes out.

YVR Right, and it’s not always just language—

ECC —Exactly. Language is visual, but it is also sonic and historical because words have etymologies. All things start coming into play. Words have specific socio-cultural contexts. Words can be tied specifically to environment, ethnic background, and sexual orientation. It’s amazing what language does—it’s everything.

YVR Slow Lightning is an ekphrastic manuscript in many ways. You use the form in different ways, but you also experiment with shape, language, and code-switching. Why the ekphrastic poem? What does that specific space elicit?

ECC Some of the ekphrastic poems gesture towards the pieces that inspired them, and some of the pieces do not approach the original piece. You can’t imagine it or see it visually after reading the poem.

YVR It’s a translation of a translation.

ECC Yes, some people told me, You shouldn’t be calling those ekphrastic poems because they’re misleading! (laughter) I wrote the language and sometimes it led me to the original art work and sometimes it led me away from it.

The ekphrastic poems in the collection are always based on pieces that I had a visceral emotional reaction to. No matter if I saw them in a catalog or in person at a museum. When I have that kind of reaction to a piece of art, I know I must write about it. I jot down the materials, the date it was executed, and I take a picture of it, and keep it, hold it with me for a while. I remember when I first saw “Untitled Perfect Lovers,” the Felix Gonzalez Torres piece at the MoMA in ’07. It is two commercial battery-operated wall clocks placed side-by-side on a wall. Many people walked past it. They looked like an odd display of clocks, but I knew I had seen the piece online before, so I paused and stared at it. One clock eventually dies. The juice runs out. The other one continues on. It signifies loss, and absence of the beloved. Felix Gonzalez passed away of AIDS in ’96 and his partner passed away before him, so I knew what he was reliving—his own personal narrative, the absence of his lover. One clock dies, so to speak, and the other one continues, but eventually that clock dies too, but then the batteries are replaced in both and the cycle continues. It’s utterly poetic, brutal, but also cyclical. It continues and continues. I stood looking at that piece for about 30 minutes—crying a little bit here and there. I had a connection to that piece because of Gonzalez’s life story. I’m sure people were walking by thinking, Oh, great, another New York City crazy. (laughter)

My favorite paintings have a lot going on. I like abstract paintings, collages, and figurative work. Weird brush strokes. Applied materials. Texture. When I look at those type of paintings, I go from looking at one part of the canvas, to another place, and then another. It mimics the way I write some of my poems. I make these visual leaps. I go from here, to there, and there. I’m never just focused on one part of the canvas. I have to move my gaze around.

YVR That reminds me of Robert Rauschenberg’s work.

ECC Yes, his mobile constructions. You are not only looking at the wall that the painting is attached to, but you have to look around because some of his pieces extend to the floor. He extends the gaze of the viewer. But even with these different angles of looking at a painting, most of the time a painting is constrained by a frame, and to me that is the structure, the sonic images that we have in poetry.

YVR Like a form—

ECC —Yeah, it’s a form. A poem is a container, although it may have many wild leaps, gazes, or angles of approach.

YVR Although the manuscript treats serious subjects, you employ playful language and humor.

ECC As poets, we wrestle with language on the page but we also play with it. I’m always mishearing things in conversations on the subway and it always makes me smile. It always comes when I’m drafting something humorous or tenuous. Black humor is never really like chuckle laughter—it’s a wetted down kind of humor.

YVR Kind of witty—

ECC —Yes, well, it tries to be witty, but if you try too hard to be witty, you are not witty. It’s another example of being open to different sorts of language and music. Humor has this place in my life. I love humor. I love being funny and I love being around people who are funny. I often think of my poems as people I’m hanging around with. I want some of them to be mopey and depressing because I like mopey and depressive people, but I also want some of them to be funny.

YVR For example in, “Poem After Frida Kahlo’s Painting The Broken Column,” you make jokes like, “Why do Mexicans make tamales at Christmas? So they have something to unwrap.”(laughter)

ECC I know! I remember when my mom first told me that. My mom really did tell us that. I was like, Wow, mom. (laughter) We all started laughing. We were young when she told us that. It’s always stuck with me. Like, Okay, this is our reality, but within this working-class background there are always moments of joy, of pleasure—you could be poor and happy. We don’t want to romanticize poverty, or the working-class, but people live their lives in these landscapes and they survive. Some of them thrive emotionally, so humor reminds me that it’s possible to thrive, even in the darkest corners.

YVR At your book release party at NYU, you mentioned the ban of the ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District in Arizona. You touch on a variety of subject matters in this book, but a theme that arises consistently is that of immigration. How did the banning of books in Tucson influence you?

ECC Some people could read this book as very political. I like to think of myself as the Tucson Unified High School District’s worst nightmare because I am exactly the type of student they want to erase or put in the margins. I come from a working-class background in Arizona. I have a Chicano Studies degree from Arizona State University, but that degree, that knowledge of my own culture and people did not make me ethnocentric nor narrow my possibilities. It opened many doors to me. My unpacking of my own ethnic background, my own specific history showed me how connected I am to every other culture in the world. All this mestizaje, and all this mixture. Learning about my own people, my culture enlarged my worldview and made me feel connected to the world in vital ways that I still depend on.

YVR You allude to many writers in the book such as Robert Hayden, Gloria Anzaldúa, and José Montoya. How did those writers influence you?

ECC Robert Hayden is the foundational figure for me for two reasons: first, craft-wise. I just love a well-crafted poem and so many of his poems are well-crafted. Beautiful poems. Sonically gorgeous, visually interesting, and his rhetorical arguments are stunning. They seem very simple but once you start digging underneath the surface of his poems, so many things are going on. He makes many connections under the surface. It’s amazing. He taught me the supreme importance of craft. As a poet, I have to take this, my art, seriously. Very seriously. One extension of that is whenever I publish a poem in a journal, I always take my contributor’s copies, and take a sharpie to my poem in the pages of that journal. I say, Okay, maybe I don’t need that comma. Maybe I should take out that adjective. Maybe I should just switch these two lines. Just to remind myself—it’s continual. You always have to keep thinking about how to make a poem better. Rarely do I keep those revisions I do on the page of the journals. For me they are a ritual that helps me remember—it’s about the craft, it’s about the art.

YVR Yes and the poem can change over time, right?

ECC It can change. Robert Hayden would change many of his poems that were published in journals and books. Donald Justice would still tinker and revise poems after they were published in books. Many people do that. It’s annoying for critics and scholars, but the poet has to do what the poet has to do.

YVR One example of that is the infamous Marianne Moore poem: “I, too, dislike poetry.”

ECC Yes, it’s a two-liner, but it’s a longer poem that she kept alternating. I have a lot of influences in the work. I like to wear my influences on my sleeve and they vary from Chicano poets and writers like Lorna Dee Cervantes and José Montoya, who’s very famous for his code-switching poems, which were a vital influence for me. People like Jean Valentine, Bei Dao, and Rita Dove are very important writers to me. Henri Cole. C.D. Wright. They are all there in my book. I see their influences. I like that. I think a lot of young writers and I suffer from this—we wear our influences on our sleeves, but then we worry that our influences are too visible in the work. One way to counter that is by not being focused on just one poet, or one kind of school or aesthetic. Become a really good reader of many different kinds of poems and poets. Obsess over more than just one poet. Let it be someone who’s dead, a master, but also someone who’s living, who’s still practicing their art, perfecting their own tools. It’s ok to be obsessed and love the living. I do. Henri Cole and C.D. Wright are very important to me. I always tell young writers—bring the dead inside of you. A handful. Absorb the dead. Have the living inside of you but also their masters, the people before us who achieved respect and admiration in the poetry world. They achieved that for a reason. Take those inside of you, I say. Absorb multiple writers so you don’t sound like one person. Let’s be honest, I mean, if you flip through contemporary journals right now, you will find young writers who are so enamored of a certain poet, and they sound exactly like them. Those poets are definitely working out those influences. I always go back to my own work and give those writers their space. Ok, I’m going to listen to your work and what you’re doing, but it makes me aware of my own process. Am I really trying to mimic somebody else or trying to strike out my own?

YVR So it’s important to jump out of the canon you are taught in school?

ECC When I talk to MFA students, they always ask me, what should I read? If I read some of their poems, I might say, oh, you would benefit from X,Y, and Z, this poets work. I’ll always ask them this—which poets are being celebrated in your MFA program? Which poets are being pushed by your professors? And I say, Ok, you read those poets, but then you read the poets who are on the opposite spectrum of that aesthetic. Search those poets out. Search poets who are not being talked about in your workshop. Or even better, read the poets who are being dismissed in your workshop by your professors or your classmates. Read those poems. Do not rely on somebody else’s opinions. And I say, Don’t just focus on the contemporary. A lot of MFA students just focus on the contemporary. Read from different historical time periods, read translated work, and read from across the world.

YVR You are at work on your next book on the artist Martín Ramírez. What is it about his work and life that inspired a full-length collection?

ECC The idea for the second project is to revolve around Martín Ramírez in multiple ways—persona poems in his voice, but also ekphrastic poems based on his collages and drawings. I saw his drawings first in ’07 in New York. I was visiting a friend and the American Folk Art Museum had an exhibit of his drawings and collages. I went there and I recognized the elements of Mexican cities, churches, the Madonna, and men and women on horses. I recognized those figures. I recognized the colors too. The colors that he used reminded me very much of Aztec codices. Very natural pigments. I wonder how it came to him or if he was aware of that connection to the codices.

They were just beautiful, beautiful drawings. Apparently he had mental issues and was picked up by police in the late ’20s. For the rest of his life he was hospitalized in mental institutes in California. He died in 1963. All this time he was drawing and drawing. By chance his doctors recognized his gift, and there were people who talked about his work and exhibited his work while he was still alive. After he passed away, he was forgotten. Here and there, a revival, but it was forgotten for the most part. That’s what fascinates me. He was scuttled away from society in mental institutes in California, yet he produces a body of work that is saved by his doctors in garages. They had a chance to be destroyed. Any moment someone could have thrown those boxes away. They could have been damaged by rain or weather, but they survived and got noticed again. His body of work becomes elevated. It gains currency in the art world. These are expensive pieces now. That journey from invisibility, marginalization of the human being, to his death, to his artwork being museum-worthy, is what I want to investigate.

YVR You have said that the more autobiographical a poem sounds, the more fictional it is. While working on this manuscript, you gave yourself assignments. You wrote poems from the voice of a vulture, a child with 18 arms, and a man on the bus in the ’80s; to prove that language is elastic. What kind of assignments are you giving yourself now?

ECC I think of something crazy because I need to get outside of my mind, rituals, and habits. Sometimes I’ll be walking through the city and each time I step in a crack in the sidewalk, I think of “step on a crack, break your mothers back,” the childhood saying, but to challenge myself, each time I step on a crack, I have to come up with a metaphor.

On the subway, I put in my ear buds but I don’t listen to the music. Nobody knows that, so people around me think I’m listening to music, but really I’m paying attention and they are free to say crazy things, or let down their guard a little bit. Sometimes they say really interesting things. When I first arrived in the city, I heard a young woman tell her mother—I remember tweeting this—”I hate the mirror because it makes me look like you.” It wasdevastating. The girl must have been in her mid-teens and her mother in her mid-forties. Things like that are in my notebooks, and I keep thinking about it. It’s disturbing, isn’t it? Utterly cruel. We know teenagers say so many mean things to their loved ones all the time. I did. I’m sure my nieces and nephews are going to be saying very terrible things coming up soon. That’s adolescence for you.

I always tell young writers to keep their ears open. One bit of overheard language can lead you somewhere unexpected. It’s not just language either. Sometimes when I’m walking around the city, I will take out my hand and drag my fingertips along a wall, tree, fence, or metal surface just to see what kind of association I have with the texture. You never know what’s going to pop into your head, so always reach out. Try to use your senses. In Central Park, I like to sit on the bench, close my eyes, and see what my ears pick up. Once you shut your eyes, you hear things differently. You never know who the speaker is. If I hear somebody talking, I tune out what they are saying, but I try to imagine the person who’s speaking it. I try to jot down a description in my notebook because you never know what will come to you. It’s a crazy process (laughter), but you just have to keep at it.

I never get tired of drafting, revising, or thinking about poetry. Some days its serious work, but other times playing with language is fun and surprising. I’m always thinking about language or trying to eavesdrop on it. I’m having a good time doing that.

Yezmin Villarreal Rivera is a freelance writer and poet. She lives in Phoenix, Arizona.

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