Roy G. Guzmán is a Honduran poet whose first collection, Catrachos, was recently released by Graywolf Press.
Raised in Miami, Florida, Roy is the recipient of a 2019 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. In 2017, they were named a Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow. They are also the recipient of a 2017 Minnesota State Arts Board Initiative grant and the 2016 Gesell Award for Excellence in Poetry. Their work has been included in the Best New Poets 2017 anthology, guest-edited by Natalie Diaz, and Best of the Net 2017, guest-edited by Eduardo C. Corral.
Roy holds degrees from the University of Minnesota, Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, and the Honors College at Miami Dade College. They currently live in Minneapolis, where they are pursuing a Ph.D. in Cultural Studies (Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society) at the University of Minnesota.
Claire Mullen: Can you explain for us the title of your debut collection, Catrachos?
Roy G. Guzmán: “Catrachos” is a very common word used with one another in Honduras. I went to a private school when I was growing up there, and there were of course classist attitudes about language, about attire, even the way you spoke Spanish, and I remember catrachos being a word that I thought was dirty. Every time I would hear it there, and then also when I moved to the U.S., it brought a sense of weirdness. I didn’t know what to do with this word. At first the title was because I was thinking about: what does it mean for me to reclaim something that originally made me feel shame? Originally it made me feel sort of disconnected, and it was because I didn’t know the history of it.
Of course, as soon as I found out the history I realized it is a continuing and never-ending story of US imperialism in Central America. It’s an extension of not just native erasure, but also the possibility of extending slave plantations into Mexico and into central America. William Walker tried doing that in Mexico and failed. He tried to build a colony there that was basically modeled after southern U.S. plantations. He took advantage of how, at the time, different Central American countries were experiencing a lot of civil unrest. Walker became president of the country in 1956. He basically became an emperor. I was thinking about this not just as U.S. imperialism, but also as corporations going into countries and forcing roots––imploding, polluting, and basically changing the ecosystem and the landscape of those places.
I added the “s” to Catrachos because as I was working with Graywolf on the edits, it became apparent that there are a lot of children in the book. I realized this isn’t just my story. It’s also a story of my parents. It’s also my family still in Honduras. It’s also people who have haunted me for so long, it’s about spirits, it’s about the past. I thought: this has to become a plural noun. Even though I use the “x,” as in Latinx or Chicanx, I didn’t add it to the book at this stage because I felt that the “x,” or my connection to the “x,” is something that came much later in the writing process.
I think it’s important to create a sense of defamiliarization and estrangement through language, but at the same time I felt I had a responsibility to both experiment and ground this book in language that I’ve inherited. I felt that I didn’t want to impose because this archive of work wasn’t just my voice. I felt that it was very much a conglomeration of different voices.
CM: Thinking further about language, you move between references in Spanish, like Mexican pop culture with Cantinflas and Juan Gabriel, Chicano culture in Selena, Honduran references, folklore, and native Seminole words like Allapatah. How do you think about all of these working together?
RG: I think primarily the stance that I took, which Graywolf and my editors were absolutely in agreement with, was that we shouldn’t italicize anything that is from a language other than English. When you see italics in the book, they’re either internal thoughts, trying to approximate the language of a memory of what someone said, or language from different sources, such as in the poem “Self-Portrait According to George W. Bush.”
My second answer is that it’s very clear––at least for me growing up in Honduras and being raised by a Honduran mom and a Cuban stepfather––that I was constantly being exposed to different idiomatic expressions from different countries. I use the word “contamination” a lot because I think that it theoretically contains a lot of opportunities for how communities and bodies and people and languages actually grow. Language isn’t essentialist. Instead, it’s always being contaminated.
Or, on the other hand, especially with the English language, it’s imperialistic, and so it’s always amassing words from other languages. Many of the words that I use in the English were not English words. They’re French words, or Latin words, or German, or Arabic. So I wanted to honor that sense of Tower of Babel-ness in the book.
Another answer is that Mexican culture is incredibly influential in Central America. There are lots of stations in Honduras that play Mexican music. In terms of culture, the culture is borderless, and so it’s always going back and forth.
We’re also highly influenced by reggaeton and Caribbean music, and that to me is critically important too, because in my own research, I’ve seen that there are so many moments of solidarity and cross-pollination that happened between Central American countries and also Honduras. Especially around the coast we have a very Caribbean way of life through fishing, and blackness as well. Garifuna words and customs are already embedded in our culture. Once I realized that Honduran culture wasn’t monolithic, that at its very core it’s already cross-pollinated, I realized I don’t need to be married to just one language. I don’t have to italicize words. I can bring up Juan Gabriel and a Honduran reader will know Juan Gabriel.
In “Queerodactyl: My Heart was a Dystopian,” it says “beheld the bukkake throng / of mojo-coated cartilage” which in the notes I had to say is referencing Cuban mojo sauce (“moho”) rather than “mojo” (U.S. slang). This happens in another Queerodactyl poem, the one inspired by Selena. In the fourth stanza where it says, “dump truck hip-ee hip-ee dales.” A reader would likely think to read that as “dayuls”, but it’s “dahles” (Spanish for “give them”). So when I wrote the notes I had to be very careful that I wasn’t translating my own culture, but also have some kind of index, some kind of legend where I could say that I want the reader to know, again, that’s the word, “dale,” that’s the word “mojo.”
CM: I really appreciated the notes section because reading it was a bit like getting into your head, or behind the scenes. In the notes you cite a number of specific news sources, articles, and films. How and when does research factor into your creative process?
RG: Sometimes, when I am trying to resolve or write about an image, or think about a metaphor or even a sound in a poem, it’s almost like I feel speechless and all I can do is point towards something else. There are times when I feel like language wants to do something more, I want to do something more with language. I realized what I’m actually trying to do is re-embody this image or this scene from a movie. That’s when I use references as placeholders as I’m writing the poem. The revision process is when I start thinking, okay, so if in the drafting process I decided to allude to this image, what does it mean that I was trying to go in that direction? Or, why did my imagination go in that direction? Then I do the research. I teach poetry too, and I tell my students that research is a fundamental piece of the writing process.
In the third poem, in the notes section, it’s the “Queerodactyl: You don’t have to watch me whip my wings.” That one is highly intertextual. Not only is it voguing, but at the same time it’s mouthing these scientific terms so it’s a mix of low brow andhigh brow art that is also connected with Mommie Dearest as a film, which is such a cult favorite among queer people. Mommy Dearodactyl is a figure that comes up in other poems, but then there’s “The Deer Hunter,” and the Russian roulette scene in “The Deer Hunter.” To me, it’s such a haunting image about fate, choice, and chance. And I thought, well, that’s also what queer and trans survival is about, right? Going out in the world. It’s about those things, and so I bring that in. It’s a film that might be highly patriarchal. It’s a film about war and U.S. imperialism again. I ended up inverting that so that it speaks more to this notion of queer survival.
Culture needs to be at the center of how we understand communities. I think that pop culture, as a thing that is shared so widely with other cultures, should not be excluded from the conversation.
CM: It seems there are a lot of childhood obsessions that surface, like the dinosaurs, X-Men, The Sims, Arthur, so I wanted to ask what those represent to you as cultural items. What are they signifying to you?
RG: I want to say that that is the child speaking in the poems. That it is a child trying to say, “I’ve been able to carve out a space for myself that cannot be taken from me.” I think that as an immigrant, as a formerly undocumented child, there’s so much trauma about not just home and homelessness, but there’s trauma around what can you take with you that the state, or power, or that being disenfranchised isn’t going to take away from you.
There are moments where I think about the notion of a hiding spot, and stuffing it with things where perhaps later on you can come back to recuperate. That’s a trope that appears in a lot of writing about people who have been displaced. Where are the things that you tried to bury, but that you now have to resurrect? I was thinking about that in the Arthur poem, where it says “cartoons are too infantile” in italics. This is the super ego, the law reprimanding the child.
Cartoons are too infantile, they say, like parents who dab hot sauce on their children’s fingers to discourage them from thumb sucking. They can’t see which episodes I’ve hidden my luggage in, kept my dog-eared thesaurus, my musty diplomas like diplomats to intercede for me when my accent is called out, as if my tongue held lesions unconscious to me.”
In moments of despair, of dislocation, of disenfranchisement, how do you quickly find either in your memory, in your mind, or in a physical space, somewhere where you can hide something about you that you can come back to reclaim?
I think a lot of these poems are about burying and digging up. The last poem is a Queerodactyl, where it says: “Church is anything with a pair / of wandering hands & a bucket.” It’s exactly that. The child is there with (I imagine)sand to create something new out of what has been left from trauma, from war.
For me comics have represented the idea of being a mutant, the idea of being an outsider. Marrow is a character from X Men, she gets her three poems. She’s an outsider among mutants. She’s actually discriminated against by Wolverine, sort of like the “socially accepted” mutants, she becomes the other of the other.
It’s not just a question of the imagination and the potential of the imagination, but also how do comics or texts, like The Land Before Time, what questions are they asking about power? What questions are they asking about friendship? About chosen families, for instance? About control?
CM: You’ve mentioned the Queerodactyl poems and the Marrow series. Why did you choose to create these series within the book? Also, why do you structure the book in five sections?
RG: So the sequence part—I’ve read lots of books that have sequences, and I find that not only are they moments to reflect on what’s been read, but these are also moments that don’t have to exist within the larger logic of the book.
These are spaces where you, like, break down and dance. Sort of interludes. I say that because I’ve been very much influenced by music. I’m thinking about Solange’s A Seat At The Table, and also, bless his heart, Kanye West’s early work, and Lauryn Hill does this too, where in these moments you get to sort of sit down around a fire and have a conversation that feels almost like breaking the fourth wall. Interludes are spaces where you can also hear a different kind of critique, a different voice that enters the album and you have to contend with that. I very much love books that do that. I love books that have non sequiturs. And so that’s how I think about the Queerodactyl poems and the Marrow poems.
I’ve talked about how Pan’s Labyrinth, for instance, or, Beasts of the Southern Wild, these movies have been highly influential to me. I think about how, if the Marrow poems and the Queerodactyl poems are storytime, how does a child survive in a world that’s constantly creating obstacles and traumatizing the child? The child will create these sort of fantastic worlds, right? You see that in Pan’s Labyrinth, the fantastic has to contaminate the real world because the real world is unable to give space to the child, to respect the child.
So I think of the Queerodactyl poems almost like a story within the story. A myth, within this larger story. I also see them very much as episodic, like serialized comic books.
As for how I structured the sections, I know that this is going to sound kumbaya, but we’re talking about poetry so it’s already kumbaya. There are good reasons why we need kumbaya in the world. One day I actually had a dream where the most bizarre thing happened. In this dream I saw five sections. In the dream, I kept having a conversation about not just the five sections, but I kept thinking about the stars of the Honduran flag. So I thought of structuring the book into five sections that are almost inevitable. And sure enough, that’s what happened.
CM: I hadn’t made that connection with the flag, that’s fascinating. You’ve said before that your work includes references to multiple identities, such as being an immigrant to the U.S., queer, Latinx, from Miami, from Honduras, and bilingual. You said, “I don’t like to let them reconcile as much as exist at the same time.” What do you mean by that, and how do you think about this reconciliation?
RG: For me, identities that don’t necessarily reconcile is exactly the identity of the marginalized. The marginalized are already sort of juggling different identities that the state, I’m thinking about the U.S. specifically, then tries to categorize, and tries to create this sense of power and competition among these categories. So for me, the irreconcilable is much more true to my experience as dealing with trauma, dealing with poverty, dealing with displacement, dealing with language. It’s much more true to those different kinds of trajectories that my body and my mind have taken than something that seems too neat. Something that feels it can be narrativized very easily.
I mentioned Aristotle in the poems twice. In the last of the Marrow poems it says that her social worker is trying to reconcile all of these contradictions, in this sort client they have.
Your social worker writes down:
She demonstrates exemplary
movement of the Aristotelian
rising shame, crown of thorns, bastardization—
the metaphysical resolution.
I am playing with the conventions of plot in the Aristotelian model with rising action and climax. In fact, this social worker, through the eyes of the white, hetero, clinical case, I would say, is trying to fit this woman’s life into something that seems convenient and that seems able to be understood, yet what he writes down just doesn’t make sense in terms of that kind of model. The metaphysical resolution is this idea that it’s like things cannot be resolved. Death, perhaps, is the only resolution that happens to us as living organisms.
There’s another Queerodactyl poem where it says,
Neither gag reflex nor shrill discouraged gravity.
Night could chugalug the kind of pulse that hounds
for shelter outside the melted, muscular zip code—
& don’t angels plummet before they’re privatized
under the Aristotelian method, the stress of what
you’ll wear when Death proposes, sass & pizazz
of a surf swum right?
I think about that, the idea of privatizing someone’s death. This sequence of poems started at the beginning of 2016, before the Pulse massacre in Orlando, and a lot of these poems took on different tones afterward. I was thinking here of the idea of what happens when your death, especially if you’re someone that the state killed, because of negligence or very much intentionally, what happens when the state tries to basically pimp and commercialize your death? I’m thinking of course of the Queerodactyls, but in other poems where I mentioned angels I’m thinking also about HIV and AIDS victims.
These angels that are plummeting before they are privatized under the Aristotelian method represent the idea that the state, in order to serve its own rationale and logic, will find ways to reign in these lives that were always against the state. States couldn’t exactly mathematize. This is what happens when the state creates these videos or pamphlets, where it would use victims of AIDS for instance, and say things like, do you want to be like this person? Of course you don’t want to be like this person, so therefore follow this or follow that.
I’m not just thinking about governments, but I’m also thinking about the church. Religious institutions that end up inverting these people’s stories and events, that have nothing to do with the state except to show the inability and the negligence of the state, and yet they end up appearing in textbooks and in movies as like, wait, what? Like when did this person become part of the logic of imperialism? This person was always against imperialism.
When I bring that stuff up about Aristotle, I also think about Freud and the question of interpreting dreams. How does the state, or the Academy, interpret dreams of people that were never allowed to dream in the first place? Or whose dreams were always treated as sub dreams. They’re not cohesive. They’re not coherent to the state. Therefore, they’re not really dreams, they’re just fluff.