Roy Guzmán’s Catrachos (Graywolf Press) is a beautiful and hypnotic debut. In this poetry collection, Guzmán casts a wide aural and theoretical net of flirtatious fossils, litigious ghosts, and bodies liberated from maps. The bright, barbed mouthfeel of these poems snapped me out of my pandemic brain fog, and I was hungry for someone, anyone, that I could read to.
Catrachos is a trip. Between Blastoise (the Pokémon) and Selena (the singer), we are immersed in both a precise and multivarious consideration of neocolonialism, queerness, immigrant labor, and grief. The future is singed by violence, and Guzmán, who helped me move during the aftermath of my first big gay break up, is a singular and unrepentant force in plumbing history’s apertures.
I had the great pleasure of talking to Guzmán over Zoom about their astounding poetry debut, Cardi B, empire, debt, and queer cosmologies of lovemaking.
Aegor Ray I remember you tweeted to find out if anyone had connections to Cardi B’s agent, to see if you could get her to blurb your book. I read Catrachos just as “WAP” came out.
Roy GuzmánI did a reading recently, and I read a poem that I had never read out loud before. It’s one of the “Queerodactyl” poems—the one that starts with, “Neither gag reflex nor shrill discouraged gravity”—and I was like, I want to dedicate this to “WAP.” Even when I was writing a lot of this work, I thought, Holy shit, are you sure you want to say this, Roy? Are you sure this is a statement that wants to be said? Then I was like, Yeah, push it… Push it real good. I think a lot about Diane Seuss. She has a way of starting poems with that Fiona Apple turn. Like, We’re in a space of discomfort, we’re in a space of the uncanny, even.
To start a poem at the anus or the gag reflex may seem to a reader like a slanted point of view. As a writer, I feel this is a queer origin point.
These moments of starting a poem with “neither,” I’ve learned from Seuss and Carl Phillips. In “After the Tempest,” I start with the line “As if to,” and in “Quinceañera,” with “After they dropped.” We’re already situated in power dynamics; we’re already on shaky ground. How does a poem get out of a space like that? Does it ever get out? The movie already begins in that moment of pause. How do we get back? Flashbacks, foreshadowing. It’s very cinematic in that sense.
AR Does that speak to the book’s relationship to time?
RG I’m definitely interested in sequence. From a poetic point, on the page, I’m thinking about queer time as fucking with chronology, as working backwards, as functioning simultaneously, as saying “An action happened, but let’s do it again. Let’s rehearse it one more time.”
AR I see that in your “Queerodactyl” poems, beginning with “We vogued in graveyards.” You’re taking your time with this exaggerated gesture.
RG You’re also pointing to the question of joy. I think joy is a very metaphysical and transcendental preoccupation, but because we experience joy through our bodies, it has to be connected to time. Why? Because of the finitude of our bodies.
You’re talking about the freedom to come in and out of the body too. Voguing for me is its own language. Voguing in a graveyard as a testament to life and a nod to those we lost—those who were our age, whom we’ve lost to HIV/AIDS complications. By virtue of living, we as queer and trans people are always in the condition of mourning. And even when we are mourning, even when we are fucking shit up, we’re propelling the continuum of queerness and transness.
You made me think of the Orlando poem, the line “the evening of the shootings after dinner with friends who grieve by not dying.” For me, the grieving by not dying is also that: the multeity of living, mourning, grieving, dying—always present in the “queer moment,” the queer second of time.
AR That makes me think of this line in “Our Lady of Suyapa,” where you say, “we aspire to grief that lives only as grief.” Or in “DIA DE LOS MUERTOS” where you write, “Every year we raised the dead we thanked them for the floods / thanked them for how the missing bodies floated / when we planned to find them.” All the way to “Payday Loan Phenomenology,” where you describe your stepfather taking out a credit card to see your graduate. Throughout the book, there’s an underneath that could bottom out at any moment. You’re grateful that the grief doesn’t become something else, and your gratitude is so tied to debt.
RG With these moments, I’m considering the question: Can one ever be thankful for debt? Can debt ever grant you a fucked-up sense of closure, even momentarily? How does debt allow certain possibilities that were previously foreclosed? Unfortunately, I am thinking about the situations where we are left with nothing, or where the system has brought its onslaught of theft and grief and whatnot. Can there ever be gratitude in a moment like that?
In “After the Tempest,” I’m in conversation with this writer who was hit by lightning more than once and survived. One of the things I find so striking is that she’s walking her dogs by the beach when it happens, and she face-plants in the water, and the dogs try to rescue her, and she starts thinking about her practice of transcendental Buddhism. She has the space to ask, Is there a position we can place our bodies into that when we are dying to reach this other state of consciousness? It’s a dignified question.
This poem is also looking at a couple while they are drowning, with a different question hovering over that scene. When all these people were left to rot during not just Hurricane Mitch, but also Hurricane Katrina, where was their moment of dignity? Robbed from them by a state so meticulous in stripping them of any relief — a process that began long before these environmental disasters. I’m thinking along those lines with “Payday Loan Phenomenology” or with the beheaded body in “Quinceañera,” even in “Those Seventy-Two Bodies Belong To Us.” In the moment of death and complete assault on someone’s body, where is the dignity? If it is not there, do we need to seek the spectral ghosts of that aftermath? Catrachos is very much about unfinished business.AG There are a couple moments that feel like true flexes in this book: the awesomely verbose “Queerodactyl” right before “Arthur’s Spelling Trouble” where the speaker says, “I don’t speak very good English”; And your poem “When a Person Says Go Back To Your Country,” where you call the xenophobe’s bluff.
RG My immediate response is to say that those poems are what’s known as diss tracks. I’m going to say a couple different things that might not cohere at all.
One reason I originally liked Kanye, especially that song “Through The Wire,” was because it got me thinking about what one can do if they are muzzled or constricted from making sounds. What happens when one is told they can’t go beyond certain parameters? I feel like a lot of hip hop is in the spirit of calling shit out, even your own shit, and going from the very grand to the very specific. I’ve also been very influenced by what Biggie does with family snapshots.
I was deliberate about having these poems next to each other, because I was thinking about how a word like “bootylicious” gets into the dictionary. What does it mean to misspell things that are excluded and then suddenly granted this accrued value by the state or linguists or whomever thinks they control language? Something like voguing, so specific to Black and Brown queer people, becomes this global phenomenon through Madonna. Or someone like Alan Turing, who set the foundation for computers, only recently gets pardoned by the British government for his queerness.
With “When a Person Says Go Back to your Country,” I feel like I’m such a bitch. Someone who has read my book so far is going to be like, Roy is absolutely going to talk about what’s wrong with this line. But instead, to the victims of the verbal onslaught I say, “Do it. DO IT! Show them it can be done.” There’s that character, the man who says, “I don’t want any trouble.” I had to put his ass in there, too, because this is the violence we as immigrants navigate—the contradictions in birthplace, nation, entitlement, even the notion of “trouble.” I’m thinking about the national border, and who really gets to get out.
AR Speaking of aftermaths and legacy, how did you conceive of “Self-Portrait According to George Bush,” and how does it live in 2020?
RG I don’t know if you’re familiar with George W. Bush’s paintings, but I was so shocked and furious at this man’s ability to have this unbothered moment of painting his own feet, his own dogs, his own reflection. He literally took that away from millions of people.
AR He also just published this book of immigrant paintings in August. Did you see this?
RG Oh my God. Are you fucking serious? This violence is so specific, so meticulous. It’s so ridiculous that it seems unbelievable, and at the same time, this is exactly what the state will do. It will kill you and then turn you into a commodity. It will kill you and turn you into an artifact. You see this so much with revolutionaries. Those paintings—I could not cope with those paintings. I asked myself, What if this monster was to paint me? What would I see? How could I use his own tools? I read transcripts of his speeches, and I landed on one and was like, Holy fuck, this is the language he used: criminals, broken, human smugglers. With the larger canvas of the erasure in that poem, I got more specific with people I knew, friends I grew up with.
The Chinese restaurant in the poem is owned by a Chinese man who is also Venezuelan and American. It is a space from my childhood, a space of hiding, a space of queerness, even. Going to a restaurant to pay for a meal, you befriend all these people who work there, and you leave with these stories. The menu is the exact same menu of that restaurant. I grew up navigating a lot of spaces that weren’t always in a black/white signification.
AG One of my favorite poems is “Marero.” It’s a beautiful, delicate love poem with such cruel imagery.
RG It is absolutely a love poem, a sex poem, a poem about intimacy. It’s a poem that navigates different forms of masculinity, too. One of the driving images behind it is in how you create a space where intimacy is flowing, where there’s cross-pollination, and where there’s danger. The tattoo of the headless girl, a girl with a tail of a dragon mouthing, “run asshole, run!” I’m thinking about these young people, women included, who have no choice but to join gangs for their livelihood, and the state continues to find ways to criminalize them. I’m thinking about what it means to inherit a cesspool and still find beauty there, to still find fertility.
There’s this implication in the poem that this man is in the closet; he’s fucking on the down-low. There’s something so delicious and dangerous that happens with the forbidden, with calling someone daddy. Sometimes the people who get branded as the most fucked-up become the people who teach us how to be fucking humans. There is literally a cosmology of lovemaking happening here.