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Tomas Q. Morin
Tomás Q. Morín is the winner of the 2012 APR/Honickman First Book Prize for his collection A Larger Country.
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Warm greetings, Rick! Thanks for stopping by and reading. I'm Mexican-American. What part of the country are you from?
26 letters just didn't seem like enough, you know? This week has been a lot of fun. I hope I return before too long :) Happy holidays!!!
My first memory of the alphabet is seeing the letters—they were about the size of a mug—printed on one of those long pieces of posterboard that is meant to rest above the blackboard. I think there were apples and worms next to the letters, and the worms may have even had glasses. What fascinated me were the shapes of the letters, especially those that had tails facing this way or that. And I can’t forget the serious, attentive looking capitals standing next to the miniscules so that the whole picture looked like a silhouette of the Alps or a train of parents and children waiting outside a store the morning after Thanksgiving. I’ve always wanted to write an abecedarian, to use the structure of my favorite mountain range to order my thoughts in the way those giants Czeslaw Milosz and Ezra Pound once did, but I could never decide on what would be worth sharing. The last year or so as I’ve been happily answering the smart, probing questions of interviewers, I’ve been anxiously hoping no one would ask the dreaded question: “Who are your influences?” It would be like a geneticist walking up to someone on the street and saying, “Here’s a pencil and paper. Now sketch your genome.” It would be impossible to remember every distant cousin and great-great grandparent on someone’s side twice removed, much less to whom you owe your odd-shaped toes or your long eyelashs. The same is true for literary influence. What’s more, I object to a literary family being shaped like a tree because it implies that Homer or the writer of Gilgamesh is the old, hidden root to our twigs when nothing could be further from the truth because I just saw Homer in a bookstore; he was lounging on a whole shelf in fact, and looked as vibrant and full of fire as any debut author. What follows is an attempt to head off that question of forebears. Some purists will see my alphabet as messy or even sacrilegious since I’ve opened the doors and let in the digraphs, those crazy uncles that never get invited to family reunions. If I made this list tomorrow, it would surely be different. Happily so, indeed. a – Anna Akhmatova b – Elizabeth Bishop c – Amy Clampitt ch – Charles M. Schultz d – Annie Dillard e – Ralph Waldo Emerson f – Flannery O’Connor ph – Philip Levine g – Gerald Stern h – Seamus Heaney i – Isaac Babel j – Jorie Graham k – Franz Kafka l – Stan Lee m – Czeslaw Milosz mc – Cormac McCarthy n – Pablo Neruda o – Sharon Olds p – “Papa” Hemingway q – David Quammen r – Robert Frost s – Mark Strand sh – Sam Shepard t – Leo Tolstoy th – Henry David Thoreau u – Du Fu v – Vasko Popa w – William Carlos Williams wh – Walt Whitman x – is for the anonymous author of... Continue reading
Posted Dec 21, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
It was August and I was on my way to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference for the first time. For some reason I don’t remember (bad weather, a loose screw), my plane from La Guardia to Vermont was grounded and I would have to stay the night in Flushing. While I was disappointed I was going to miss the C.K. Williams reading that night, what really bummed me out was the thought that the other writers also accepted as scholars would have their meet and greet, bond, and I would be the odd man out. It had been years since I had last been part of a community of writers so I had wanted to make a good impression in the hope that I would leave Vermont with two or three new friendships. When I arrived the next day, I was relieved to learn that the scholars had not met yet. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, I remember thinking how they seemed very down to earth and not intimidating at all as I had thought writers as accomplished as they were (some of them already had books!) might be. I can’t remember if it was then or the next day but at some point we decided that we should have at least one meal together. After that meal, everywhere I went I saw clusters of us sitting together at readings or lounging at the barn or eating breakfast. Something special had happened that first time we broke bread. That new bond we had with each other was cemented during the scholar reading when we all read some of our work in the Little Theater to the Bread Loaf community. Sasha West, the last of our group to read, captured the magic of that night best when she took the podium and said, “I just fell in love hard, 14 times.” One afternoon when a bunch of us were sitting around a picnic table we did what writers do and had a sublime moment of silliness when we decided we didn’t want to be called by the bland, generic name Scholars anymore. I can’t remember what other names were suggested, but Voltron is the one that stuck. Being children of the 80s, most of us had grown up with the cartoon series, Voltron: Defender of the Universe. In each episode young pilots flying planes shaped like lions would battle evil. Whenever a fight was about to overwhelm them individually, all of the vehicles would join together to form a giant robot. Before long, the Bread Loaf community started seeing weird signs with VOLTRON!!!! printed on them popping up all over the place. While few people knew what any of this meant, we didn’t care. We were Voltron and that was that. Even though we haven’t all been reunited since that wonderful summer three years ago, I’ve leaned on my Voltron brothers and sisters more times than I can count. I had hoped to leave Bread Loaf with... Continue reading
Posted Dec 20, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Hey Leslie, Nope, from what I can remember we received no pointers re: how to read. I do remember having the sense when I was a kid that I was a pretty good "vocalizer" of whatever we were reading in class. When I was really young I liked to read out loud because I loved the sounds of words, so I think that helped a lot. I like that pointer about reading under. Better to leave them wanting more than wanting to run!
The day before I was to have my teeth cleaned, I was telling my wife over the phone how the dentist’s office had said I would be free at 10:00 from their chamber of hooks and mouth vacuums and that ugly, cycloptic light with the orange bulb they crane over you. Because it sounded like I was saying 8:10 instead of “at 10:00,” what began as an ordinary comment quickly turned into a back and forth worthy of my beloved Abbott and Costello. I don’t recall mumbling my way through high school or college, though I was soft spoken, as friends have reminded me. What happened to my voice, I don’t know. There are times when my speech has been so garbled, I’ve had to apologize and excuse myself from the phone so I could lick my lips, clear my throat, or open and close my mouth to loosen the muscles of my face as if I were doing some kind of demented mouth yoga, anything to try and improve my annunciation so that I didn’t sound like Boomhauer from King of the Hill, a character whom I love and, not surprising, have no trouble understanding. The paradox of my mumbling is that when I read a poem out loud, I’ve been told my words go from being heavy and thick to a soft, crisp baritone. When this happens, I think I must be engaging more of my body in the act of speaking. My posture is better. I probably inhale more air and project. I open my lips wider and wrap them more firmly around each vowel. Performing a poem is almost akin to entering the Matrix, a place where I’m a better version of myself, minus the tacky trench coat. Whenever strangers compliment me after a reading, I have always assumed they were being kind because to my ear there’s little difference between my speaking and reading voices. One kind gentleman went so far as to joke that if the poetry thing didn’t work out, there was always radio where I could become the voice of America. “The voice of America” has a nice ring to it, though I don’t think she would want me to speak for her because there’s no telling what I might say about how she treats her tired and poor huddled from sea to shining sea. Worse yet, I might become a voice of “reason” for the left like Beck or Limbaugh are for the right. If that happened I would no doubt have nightmares in which my fellow soft baritones like Nat King Cole and Keanu Reeves would reproach me for misusing my instrument. It’s better not to anger Neo or the King. Better to keep my feet on the ground and out of my mouth and instead write poems about dentists or cartoons or yoga in the hope that centuries from now my voice might be one of a thousand in a dusty library whispering from the page about the truth,... Continue reading
Posted Dec 19, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
Sometimes I get nostalgic and think about my classmates from my MFA years and how I adored so many of the poems I had the privilege of reading in those workshops and how much they taught me and spurred me to try new things. There was the one poem by Rebecca Vano that was an autumn scene I think, and there might have been a stick, or was it a squirrel; I can’t remember now that ten years have passed but what I do remember is thinking that nature was alive in her poem like it is in the best work of Snyder or Kinnell, that it wasn’t just landscape, a prop, rather the real deal. There was dirt in her poem, if not stated, then implied for sure, and wind and light and they lived and existed there as just themselves, not as hokey symbols. I wanted that kind of presence in my poems. I can’t even claim to have had a floor with cheap carpet in my poems back then, much less the true ground. I wish more poems had real earth in them like Rebecca’s poem. Or more characters responding to other characters and not just our 21st century speaker in the way her husband David Vano’s poems were dramatic and electric. It was David who first introduced me to Jack Gilbert’s work, Monolithos I think it was, and then to Frank Bidart. I still remember Orpheus being torn to bits in one of David’s poems and how in spite of his death there was still music, and I think maybe there was a river too, and maybe it had rocks over which the water flowed, rocks against which the head of Orpheus rested and sang. I wanted that kind of drama in my poems, the kind Frost and Yeats made their own. I’ve missed reading the poems of the Vanos these last ten odd years and so it was with great delight when a couple of months ago David wrote me and said he had a new poem in the hopper and would I read it. Of course!, I shouted across the electronic ether and so before long I was in it again, a student happily lost in David’s poem, happily reveling in lines like this: Now there are villagers who believe that the Giant Swift was no swift but God and that since God had withdrawn His antiquarian gaze from this dark village, we would be abandoned like dreams or the world’s poor. But in that night… These lines unfold across the page like a wing. How lucky I felt to again be able to watch his mind take flight. I can only hope he will send me more. Maybe Christmas or the New Year will even bring me a poem by Rebecca. Or Groundhog Day or St. Patrick’s will bring more poems by David and did I mention he’s a wonderful painter too! Perhaps it’ll be Easter that brings me the voices of other... Continue reading
Posted Dec 18, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
I think poetry has given up that territory to fiction for far too long. I love seeing the look on the faces of undergraduates when I share with them the simple truth that they can make things up. What a revelation it is for them!
When I was an undergraduate with limitless energy and cranking out poems left and right for my workshop classes, all I wrote about was my family. There were poems about everything from my grandfather’s hands to the years he spent working in a field. Even the paisley print of one of my grandmother’s shirts made it into a poem. As did my brother, mother and father, even a certain rude classmate whose name or face I can no longer remember made an appearance as a giant rat. Some of these poems, in spite of how poorly made they were, brought my mother to tears when she read them because there we were, our family, our struggles, on a piece of paper. It was a record, albeit a weak one, that we had lived and suffered and were still here. Take all the records the government could use to prove someone’s existence (deeds, bills, social security card, pay stubs, etc.) and they would say little more than my family had lived on a certain street and used X number of watts of electricity to power our washer and microwave and the TV that once the day’s robberies and Reagan’s pearls of ignorance had been reported by news anchors and Johnny Carson had bid us goodnight, began broadcasting pure static snow all through the night until the morning brought the national anthem and our beautiful, waving flag. None of this ever made it into my poems back then because I was, in my ignorance, mining what I knew and being a third-rate Confessional. Later, when I was a graduate student and I had run out of things to write about in my life, I tried slipping into the lives of others and liked it, so much so in fact, I never tried to put myself in a poem again, aside from the minor personal detail I might secretly slip in like my tendency to mumble or my awful memory, details no one would ever know unless I pointed them out. What’s more, I tried to hide these details in scenes that might be filled with Johnny Carson and images of patriotism sitting snugly beside a microwave dinner. I was, to put it simply, trying to obliterate myself in my poetry so that I could make up stories about people and places and things that were far more interesting than I was, stories that might help a reader meet someone new or travel somewhere different. In Lord Jim, Conrad writes, “My task, which I am trying to achieve is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel—it is, before all, to make you see.” Conrad had it easy, as do most writers of fiction, in that if a reader could be made “to see” something, she would most likely not think the character who spoke about writing and seeing was Conrad himself, just as no one I know has ever mistaken Huckleberry Finn for Twain or... Continue reading
Posted Dec 17, 2012 at The Best American Poetry
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Dec 15, 2012