Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Rafael Jesús González

Wombwell Rainbow Interviews

I am honoured and privileged that the following writers local, national and international have agreed to be interviewed by me. I gave the writers two options: an emailed list of questions or a more fluid interview via messenger.
The usual ground is covered about motivation, daily routines and work ethic, but some surprises too. Some of these poets you may know, others may be new to you. I hope you enjoy the experience as much as I do.

rafael

Rafael Jesús González

(rjgonzalez.blogspot.com) was born (October 10, 1935) and raised in the bicultural/bilingual environment of El Paso, Texas, U.S.A./Cd. Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico with family on both sides of the Río Grande. Just graduated from El Paso High School 1954, he joined the U.S. Navy in the hospital corps and served in the Marine Corps with the rank of Staff Sergeant. After military service, he attended the University of Texas, El Paso (then Texas Western College of the University of Texas) in pre-med taking time to attend the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México where he studied archaeology, Mexican literature, Mexican History, and Mexican philosophy.

During this time, he published his first poems and academic articles in English and Spanish. On receiving the bachelor’s he decided to dedicate himself to literary studies which he did under a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and a National Education Act Fellowship. He did his graduate studies at the University of Oregon.

As professor of literature and creative writing, he taught at the University of Oregon, Western State Collage of Colorado, Central Washington State University, the University of Texas, El Paso (as Visiting Professor of Philosophy), and at Laney College, Oakland, California where he founded the Department of Mexican and Latin-American Studies. His poetry and academic articles appear in reviews and anthologies in the U. S., Mexico, and abroad; his collection of poems El Hacedor De Juegos/The Maker of Games published by Casa Editorial, San Francisco (1977-78) went through two editions. A selection of his moon poems, La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse was published by Pandemonium Press, Berkeley, California in 2009. He has been nominated thrice for a Pushcart price.

Also a visual artist, his work has been exhibited at such venues as the Mexican Museum of San Francisco, Galería de la Raza, the Oakland Museum of California, the Charles Ellis Art Museum, Milwaukee. In 1996, he was named Poet in Residence at the Oakland Museum of California and the Oakland Public Library under a ‘Writers on Site Award’ from Poets & Writers, Inc. and was chosen for the Annual Award for Literary Achievement by Dragonfly Press in 2002. In 2003, he was honored by the National Council of Teachers of English and Annenberg CPB for his writing. He was named featured poet by the San José Poetry Center, San José, California the fall of 2005. In November of 2005, he was invited to read his poetry and present a paper at the World Congress of Poets in Tai’an, Province of Shandong, China. In July 2006 he was named Universal Ambassador of Peace, Universal Ambassador Peace Circle, Geneva, Switzerland. In Spring 2007 he presented a paper and read his poetry at the 8º Encuentro Literario Internacional aBrace in Montevideo, Uruguay and in Winter 2008 in Havana, Cuba. In 2012 he again received the Dragonfly Press Award for Outstanding Literary Achievement and in 2013 the César E. Chávez Lifetime Award. The City of Berkeley honored him with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 13th Annual Berkeley Poetry Festival May 16, 2015. He was named the City of Berkeley’s first Poet Laureate in 2017. In 2018 he as invited to present a paper at the Proyecto Cultural Sur Congreso Internacional de las artes, Montevideo, Uruguay. He sat on the Advisory Board of the Oakland Museum of California from 1995 until its dissolution 2015; he sits on the Advisory Board of Dancing Earth, Contemporary Indigenous Dance Company. He resides in Berkeley, California.

The Interview

1. When and why did you begin to write poetry?

I can’t remember when I said my first poems, but I know that it was before I could write. My mom and dad wrote them down. And then when I began to write at the age of five or six I began to piece together words on the page (in Spanish of course.) And when I began school, I began to write in English. I knew what poetry was because I learned it before I could write; my mother and father had me learn poems by heart to recite at family gatherings. I began writing poetry because that’s what I had to do: play with meaning and sound, give words to the wonder about me and play, play, play with putting together words and wedding them to the feelings the Earth and the world inspired in me. I began writing poetry because I love to play, because writing poetry brought me joy and because it eased my pain when it was pain I felt.

2. Who introduced you to poetry?

My mom and dad introduced me to poetry. The burble they spoke to me and the whir I overheard them speak to each other gave me the sound of speech, its rhythms that I would later break into units of meaning. Mom and dad were fond of reading to me and much of what they read was poetry. As I said, my mother and father had me learn poems by heart to recite at family gatherings, and that, with their reading poems to me, trained my ear to the rhythms of words. They taught me to love language, the music it made, the meanings it could carry — they introduced me to poetry.

3. How aware were and are you of the dominating presence of older poets?

It depended on the older poet, Some folk take a lot of space and dominate it whether they’re chefs, baseball players, mariachis, compadres, aunts — or poets. One is always aware of them, after all, their intent is to dominate our attention. Now as a certified member of the order of older poets, I try to be aware that I be not dominating, but I think that I’ve always tried to do that, even in teaching (though I may not have always been successful.) In truth, I like the attention; well, the admiration, the deference; hell, the love, given me by my friends, students, colleagues and acquaintances. I have a lot of ideas, and a good bit of knowledge, and experience, not to mention memories and opinions so that I have much to say and must be aware that I don’t take up too much space and dominate it and pontificate.

4. What is your daily writing routine?

I don’t think that I have a routine. I like to write in bed when I wake up in the morning, usually something that I went to sleep with and percolated in dreams, and the words come. I keep a notebook by my bed (if truth be told, on my bed so that I sleep with it) in which to write the first draft (actually I have gone through four, five previous ones in my head) in pencil, often so scribbled that I have trouble reading it when I come to typing it into my computer for easier editing. When the muses (I have two, one speaks Spanish and the other English) are generous, the poem needs little further editing. When they are stingy, many drafts and versions follow. I do not think that poetry and routine are compatible, at least for me.

5. What motivates you to write?

What motivates me to breath? The being alive, having fun, playing with language. And the simple urgency to give expression to and explore the sometimes bright, sometimes dark labyrinths of feeling and thought. There is also the need to respond to the exigencies of confronting the threats and evils that govern us. Along with poetry and writing, my mom and dad imbued me with a keen sense of justice and a need to respond when I see it violated. Much of my writing is political; I am outraged at the violation of all-holy Earth, of justice, of peace. And given the gift of language, my love of life and of my brothers and sisters, and the other animals, and the trees and grasses, and the stones and soil, I must speak for them who have no voice. But truly, I resent having to write political poetry. I have motivation enough in celebration — of the Earth, of life, of art, of love. I would prefer to write poetry of celebration and of love. And I do — I remind my family, friends, colleagues, of holidays to be marked, of the full moons, of the turnings of the seasons with poetry more often than not.

6. What is your work ethic?

I don’t like work. And I don’t know that I am particularly ethical about it. I have been so blessed that more often than not, the boundaries between work and play have blurred. The very term “work ethic” has such a drab, puritanical, joyless quality about it that I find it distasteful. It is defined as: the principle that hard work is intrinsically virtuous or worthy of reward. It brings to mind factory drudges, office lackeys. I find nothing intrinsically virtuous about hard work though certainly work should be rewarded. Work is necessary, we must all work to put food in our mouths, clothes on our bodies, a roof over our heads, medicine when we need it, but ethic? If ethic there be, it is in justly rewarding (such a patriarchal concept), justly compensating work, and work should be made as easy as possible. If ethic there be in my work-play of writing, it is to speak truth, honestly, to put my writing in service to the Earth, to justice, to peace. I much prefer my play ethic: Play (easy or hard, if you like) is intrinsically virtuous and the pleasure it brings is its own reward.

7. How do the writers you read when you were young influence you today? {

How do they not? The first writers I read wrote nursery rhymes and fairy tales; they set the images and cadence of language that became the foundation of my writing. A bit later I came to wonderful books with such wondrous titles as Gay Neck (I still love city pigeons) and The Boy Knight of Reims (confirmed in my young mind the primacy of art and made the middle ages fascinating) and Platero y yo (celebrated the closeness between me and my brothers and sisters the other animals.) And then the marvels of “adult” literature, the battles with giant windmills and white whales, the tensions between war and peace, the trials of the miserable, shipwreck and sprites, all the joys and miseries and heroics and villainies that make us human seen through the lenses of acute observation, of finely turned sensibilities, rich imaginations, and graceful command of language. They taught me to refine my seeing and hearing and thinking and feeling through language. And still do.

8. Who of today’s writers do you admire the most and why?

I admire so many, and so many are my friends. You don’t tell friends who among them you most admire. Even with acquaintances one does not do that. I could pick among writers who are not my friends or acquaintances, but what would it tell you about me and them? References to send you to your library or local bookstore (I hope not to Amazon)? Look, dear readers, for your own writers to admire. I can tell you what it is that calls forth my admiration: honesty, truth-telling, keenly honed senses and sensibilities, a way of looking at things that surprises me, images that come alive in my head, language that sings the thought it conveys, a fundamental love and compassion for the Earth and the life it bears, an elemental kindness. Beauty.

9. Why do you write?

Why do I breathe? Because writing is an integral part of my life, of who I am. Because I need to. Because it brings me pleasure. Because I must celebrate in words. Because, like with Cyrano, it is the instrument of my courting. Because it is my weapon in defence of the Earth, against injustice, for peace.

10. What would you say to someone who asked you “How do you become a writer?”

Live, breath, smell, taste, touch, see — and hear as keenly as completely as you can. Fall in love with language. Listen and read a lot. Those writers who make the hairs at the back of your neck to bristle, your nails itch — look at, listen to them closely and try to learn the magic behind their tricks. The magic is their perception, their tricks are how they convey it to you. Poetry is not so much a mode of expression as it is a mode of perception. Observe, contemplate, think. Read, read, read. And write, write, write, play with writing, work with writing if you must. Just simply, you become a writer by writing. There is no other way. Your goal should be not simply to become a writer, but a writer worth the reading.

11. Tell me about the writing projects you have on at the moment.

To write my poem to the next full moon. And one for the upcoming holiday. And one for when the season turns. Write for a journal the promised narrative on how I became a writer. (I don’t know whether you’d call it a writing project, but to select the poems for a proposed enlarged new edition of my La musa lunática/The Lunatic Muse.) Revise, rework, edit the penciled drafts in my notebook. And write, write, write down the demanding gifts that the largesse of my muses bestow on me. And when my muses ignore me, write anyway what I need to write.

Rafael Jesús González

Poet Laureate, City of Berkeley

 

3 thoughts on “Wombwell Rainbow Interviews: Rafael Jesús González

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