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Friend of Belle Point Interview: Esteban Rodríguez
On Texas, small presses, and supporting other writers
Editor’s Note: Esteban Rodríguez is such a positive presence on social media, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know his work better over the past year. To celebrate his more recent projects, we asked Esteban to join us at our spring virtual launch back in April with Jason Myers and Anna Laura Reeve. Read on to learn more about Esteban’s writing, and click through our links to directly support his small press publishers!
“I enjoy writing personal essays as much as I do poems and criticism. They work on different registers, but writing in general is always a puzzle as much as it is a cathartic endeavor. I am hoping to one day blend all of them together in a way that looks not only at the world and books in a new light, but that moves us toward a new understanding of literature and our personal and collective past.”
Can you tell us a little more about yourself—your personal and creative background?
When I first saw Francis Bacon’s Figure with Meat in an art book in high school, I was profoundly changed. It may seem a bit cliché to say, but I saw the world differently, more grotesque, and at the same time more honest than I had ever seen. I quickly devoured whatever art books I was able to find in our small library, seeking Bacon’s work out in particular. I became quite fascinated with Bacon’s style and themes because his paintings were never wrapped in a pretty bow. He wasn’t gifting us his art, as it seemed many artists believed they were doing when they presented their projects to the world; he was inviting us to see something that lifted the façade of perfection and showed us what was resting (and festering) beneath the surface of our outward, hypocritical selves. I can’t say that I was able to transfer the ideas of Bacon’s world into mine so easily, whether it was in my own artwork (I focused intensely on art in high school and was on my way to study it in college until I was dissuaded by my parents) or my day-to-day interactions. But I wasn’t the same, and eventually when writing became an outlet for my creative expression, replacing art, Bacon was always in the back of my mind.
I’m sure other people have commented on how prolific you are. How do you generate ideas/material for so many distinct collections?
I’m not entirely sure, to be honest. I always have an idea in my head, and oftentimes there will be variations of an idea that I work on: mother-son relationship; father-son relationship; identity; belonging; the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley. Whatever the idea, however, I always write with a project in mind. Decades from now, when I look back on my work, I don’t want some stray poem or essay to be sitting in the limbo of computer files, still without a home. (this is not to say that every poem or essay makes the cut for a collection; there are plenty that get left out.) Lately, I have not been working on new poems, but rather revising old poems from a decade ago. When I was in grad school in 2013, I wrote quite a bit (about two poems a week), and I would file them in a folder on my Gmail account. As I said above, a lot of poems don’t make the cut in a collection, and there were quite a bit from my grad school era. I would say that I really found my poetic voice in 2013, so rereading these poems and knowing that my voice has flourished even further is a bit surreal. (I’m not sure I’m the same person today that I was back then, and yet strangely, my poetic self is a continuation from then to now.) But from a craft perspective, there are things that are off (too many adjectives; mixed metaphors; sloppy and unpoetic lines). Revising them has been a welcome challenge, one that I’ve been assembling into two collections tentatively titled The Lost Nostalgias and Secondhand Paradise.
What is it like to write across genres (poetry, creative nonfiction, criticism)?
Writing prose (specifically personal essays) is still relatively new to me. It sounds strange to say considering I’ve published a book of personal essays (Before the Earth Devours Us), but it’s not the most natural thing. With poetry, I get the craft and mechanisms behind it. And because poetry is generally short (between one and a few pages, although there are certainly poems and collections that extend beyond this definition), I don’t have to spend the same amount of time writing a poem as I do with writing an essay. Sometimes, writing doesn’t strictly stem from inspiration, but from practicality. With poetry, there is less room for error when I have one to two pages to work with as opposed to eight to twelve with an essay (this, I should say, is a pretty arbitrary number when it comes to the length of an essay, but we can definitely agree that essays are longer). Nevertheless, I enjoy writing personal essays as much as I do poems and criticism. They work on different registers, but writing in general is always a puzzle as much as it is a cathartic endeavor. I am hoping to one day blend all of them together in a way that looks not only at the world and books in a new light, but that moves us toward a new understanding of literature and our personal and collective past.
Can you talk about how a sense of place informs your writing? How do you see Texas and the larger region influencing your work?
Oh Texas. A certain part of me wishes that I grew up in a different region in the United States. One with seasons. One without the politicization of the border. One that wasn’t so vast (to get out of Texas from the Rio Grande Valley takes at least seven hours, depending on the direction you’re headed). Texas is complex, and the Rio Grande Valley is as well. My work, however, would not exist without my upbringing and the often surreal landscape of my hometown and the surrounding cities and places. I’m a big admirer of Cormac McCarthy, and the way that he renders vast and lonely terrains in books like Blood Meridian or The Border Trilogy is absolutely beautiful, despite how harsh the landscape might be. He poeticizes what isn’t inherently poetic, and when I began this writing journey, I knew I wanted to do something similar. The Valley is not poetic at first glance, but once you dig deeper, once you highlight the emptiness or the ruggedness, once you look at the people and see how honestly they try to live their lives, once you understand that this place is marooned in the southernmost part of the country, straddled between two cultures, that is when the poetry of this place begins to bloom. It took a while for me to see that, but not necessarily because I disliked the Valley (unlike some of my peers growing up), but because I wasn’t looking for it. When I realized that something more was there, I began to see my home differently, in a more honest and beautiful light.
I’m also impressed by your commitment to reviewing books and interviewing other authors. Do you find that that work helps you in your own creative process?
Thank you. Most definitely, at least in the sense of viewing how others perceive the world. But I should say that any review I write and any interview I conduct is mainly for the writer whose book/work I’m reviewing or interviewing about. There are so many books in the world that as a reader it becomes a bit overwhelming trying to decide what one thinks they should be reading. For reasons I have yet to figure out, there are certain poets and writers who have arrived at a place of recognition that gives them a certain status in the literary world (they judge manuscript competitions; their work is shared widely and repeatedly; they are seen as arbiters of good literature). This is by no means to say that these writers don’t deserve the recognition, but for every big-name writer on the scene, there are a dozen equally as skilled and as deserving. There is nothing I dislike seeing more than a poet with a new book that stirs little to no conversation or enthusiasm, not because the work isn’t great, but because coverage hasn’t been. A writer friend of mine once said, jokingly, that he thought he would be a better writer if he spent more time promoting his work, and that always stuck with me because I couldn’t stop thinking about the writers who have since passed who didn’t get the recognition they deserved. Perhaps because I’ve been reading the trilogy Nobodaddy’s Children, the German author Arno Schmidt immediately comes to mind. His work is unique, full of strange syntax, hilarious puns and asides, and a penchant for dark and absurd situations. His style, however, can be difficult, and it isn’t the kind of work that is easily digestible. Even now, his works (translated into English that is) are readily available, and I wonder if that would have been the case if it was more widely read during his time. There are countless writers whose work suffers a descent into obscurity for a myriad of reasons, but if I can provide them a platform to keep the conversation around their work going, then I will do so at every turn.
It’s great to see the number of small presses you’ve worked with (many of whom we consider friends as well). Can you share some insight into the author’s perspective about the independent publishing experience?
It has been absolutely fantastic to say the least. It feels great to work with people who are championing my work. I still remember quite vividly receiving the email from the great people at Hub City Press that they wanted to publish my first collection, Dusk & Dust (I was runner up for the 2017 New Southern Voices Poetry Prize, and my manuscript was under consideration in the months after the announcement of the winner and runner up was made). The process after was welcoming, from the editing to the cover art to the promotion. Hub City Press sought my work because they wholeheartedly wanted to showcase it to the world, and the subsequent presses that I have had the privilege of working with have been just as thorough, kind, and as encouraging. There is no love like small press love.
What’s your latest project? What are you working on now or what will you be publishing next? I think you have a book coming out with Texas Review Press, right? And you also have a new book out with another Texas press, FlowerSong!
I’m incredibly excited about Lotería, which, as you mentioned, will be out later this year with Texas Review Press. Lotería is a traditional game of chance popular in Mexico and in Mexican American culture. Using the image presented as a catalyst for exploration and self-reflection, the collection unveils the familial journey between two countries and cultures through both a surreal and narrative lens. A mother unearths a severed hand in the desert. A father discovers his heart among a heap of discarded items. And at one point, the speaker—toggling between his role as witness and son—finds himself in a canoe on a river contemplating the meaning behind an authentic experience.
Apart from the two manuscripts I mentioned above, I’m currently working on a book-length, hybrid essay titled Lessons in Inheritance. The book will look at my mother’s body from both a sympathetic and critical lens, and it will detail my own struggles with viewing her deterioration and helping her through her battle with cancer. The book will also focus on my relationship with writing about my mother, specifically how I viewed her body as a source of caution and contemplation and how I have tried not to steer my writing about her into areas that are exploitative and unnecessarily crude.
And while I wait for the above books to be released into the world, I am celebrating Limbolandia from FlowerSong Press. The road to this collection was long and oftentimes uncertain, simply because the collection kept on morphing into newer books along the way. At its present form, each of the sections complement and riff off of one another, but that didn’t seem the case for a few years. The poems here are a bit more surreal, but maintain a narrative quality that ventures into themes of loneliness, making meaning in a shifting and uncertain world, and finding one’s place in landscapes that are as dangerous as they are inviting. The speaker can find himself in Frankfurt, London, or the Dominican Republic questioning his heritage and what it means to carry the cultural weight of the past and present. You will also see poems that traverse beaches, sideshows, smokey alleyways, and train stations departing to no particular destination. Edward Vidaurre, the publisher at FlowerSong, believed in this work wholeheartedly, and I cannot thank him and the staff enough for bringing these poems into the world. An added bonus is that the press is based where I currently live, McAllen, so it’s good to have my work quite literally at my home.
Thank you, Esteban, for sharing your thoughts with us! We’re glad to see these new books coming into the world and look forward to seeing what’s next for you. Readers, you can click through our links above to the websites for Split Lip, Hub City, Texas Review Press, and FlowerSong to show some love for small presses and discover more of Esteban’s work.
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