A Conversation with Gabriel Ojeda-Sague
BY AIDAN FORSTER
Here at The Adroit Journal, we try our best to foster a community that embraces young and emerging writers. An undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania, Gabriel Ojeda-Sague may be both young and emerging, but his poetry is explosive. He pushes the limits of poetry in his forthcoming collection, Oil and Candle, which presents a perfect balance of lyric eloquence and narrative intensity. The poems disfigure what we consider commonplace and create shockingly unfamiliar landscapes; they are epic explorations of what it means to be Latino and queer in the literary community and in the world. The poems will shake you to your core. Read on to see what he has to say about his work in our conversation.
What sparked your interest in poetry? Was there a moment when you first thought of yourself as a poet?
I used to, around high school, write a lot of short stories and had these very romantic ideas about being a “novelist” or whatever and I wrote a couple poems here and there but nothing very good and nothing that stuck. I didn’t read a whole lot of poetry either. And then, when I was already in undergrad, I was working at a place with nightly literary events, many of them poetry. And one night CAConrad read and I remember at first thinking, huh, that was sorta cool, but weird and I don’t really get it. And someone who I worked with said he had a book called The Book of Frank and I thought, alright, well I’ll buy it and see what it’s like. That was a really, really direction-altering moment for me, reading that book. I remember, very vividly, laying under covers in my freshman year dorm and reading, and then re-reading, The Book of Frank and thinking OH! That’s what poetry can do. My experience of poetry before then had been piss-poor. Lots of crappy classics. And so I just started reading from there things I thought would be related or that I’d find interesting. And I got to Rae Armantrout, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Caroline Bergvall, Frank Sherlock, Nathaniel Mackey, and a lot of other amazing poets in the same way. And then I picked up more people I was reading, and I started writing poems more and I eventually had something published in APIARY, a magazine I also saw at my workplace, the Kelly Writers House. I mean, it’s amazing how much exposure to certain materials over others can completely change your path in writing and reading. I’d say that if I hadn’t read The Book of Frank, I’d probably still be writing pretty bad short stories.
Your book, Oil and Candle, was recently release from Timeless, Infinite Light in 2016. Congratulations! How did all of that come about? Many of the poems in Oil and Candle (for example, “Limpias”) seem to explore the idea of ritual as it intersects with cultural identity and place. Was this a conscious focus?
Oil and Candle is a few different pieces of writing from different times put together. The first thing I wrote from the book was the longest poem in it, “Abrecaminos.” This was after some of the really violent controversies around race in poetry occurred, namely Kenny Goldsmith and Vanessa Place’s stuff. And a lot of the people in those controversies were teachers of mine. In fact, poets that I admire so much and feel very influenced by were people I was introduced to by professors of mine that were defending the racist actions and performances of some of their colleagues. And I was really struggling with how to deal with this. How to think of my own poetics if it was at least in-part formed by the legacies of these writers involved in racism controversies. And I dealt with that question for a long time; I mean, I’m still dealing with it. “Abrecaminos” was the first answer to this question. It was an attempt to find a space between procedural and conceptual writing, genres which were pretty publicly imploding, and ritual writing explicitly connected to cultural forms. I remember someone mentioned to me that M. NourbeSe Philip, one of my absolute favorite poets, said she didn’t view her book Zong! as conceptualism, or procedural, but as ritualistic. So that poem started as a way to tease out exactly what that statement meant when the categories of procedural writing were in such trouble. And that poem was also influenced by a lot of readings of nuclear warfare and queer history, so they centered the poem thematically. I made a ritual that involved items of Latino Catholic folk magic and wrote inside of it. Then, I wrote “Poem for Eleguá” the day after I finished “Abrecaminos.” On a particularly angry day I wrote “Any.” And then in a particularly cynical and angry week, I wrote “Limpias,” which opens the book. That comes from my experiences in the Bay Area, in a very white-dominated scene, the same poetry controversies still going on, and having a lot of complicated feelings about my own race. Feelings about exilism, passing, diaspora, generational gaps, immigration, etc.
How does Oil and Candle relate to your body of work? Do you see it as a continuation of your previous publications, or something entirely new?
I’ve had three chapbooks before Oil and Candle, each relating to a form of semi-maligned or under-respected media. One’s about a gay sex self-help book, one is about Cher’s twitter, and one about The Legend of Zelda. My next book, which I’m currently working on, is also about an under-respected medium. That’s the only real over-arching theme I can find in my work, honestly. Oil and Candle doesn’t fit with that, but stylistically it makes sense as a continuation of my previous work. I’d say “Abrecaminos,” especially, continues a lot of stylistic practices I’ve been exploring for many years. But it does somewhat feel like an aberration from my obsession with campy, inefficient, and strange communication systems.
How does your identity as a Latino queer poet intersect with your writing? How does it intersect with other aspects of your life?
So much so that it’s hard to say so quickly. I like to say that no matter what I write, it’s Latino and queer writing. I could write a book about Coca-Cola and it would be a Latino book about Coca-Cola and a queer book about Coca-Cola. A lot of people don’t feel that way; a lot of people don’t like that description of their work. And I get that. But to me, my cultural identities define ramifications of my work, and everything that I do will be affected, quietly or loudly, by those identities. But that is to say that inside of “Latino” and “queer,” there’s a lot more. I’m a gay man (though I also identify as genderfluid), I’m Latino but specifically I’m an American-born child of Cuban exiles (of the ‘60s) and Puerto-Ricans. And those are almost bigger and badder identities that come up over just the umbrella “Latino” and “queer.”
Sometimes I worry that what I say about my identities and how important I make them out to seem will make people think that my identities are constant and blanketed. But I’d say that it is important, and important to my writing, that those identities are constituted in moments and in seconds. And they get re-shaped and re-shaped, and become larger and stranger.
What has been your biggest challenge in publishing and navigating the literary industry? Any advice for others who may want to publish a debut chapbook or collection but may feel overwhelmed by the prospect of it?
I think the absolute worst thing is starting, getting your foot in the door. My first publication came okay, not too slow, not too fast, not too many rejections. But even after that first one, you haven’t really started. And after that first poem, I didn’t have another poem published by a journal or anything for a 2 years. And it’s not like I wasn’t writing them and sending them out. They just weren’t being accepted! Nobody wanted them. I wrote two short stories and had those accepted, which kept me hopeful. But jeez! There were so many days where I would have quit, definitely. And I’ll say this: finding literary magazines, sending to the write places, writing the cover letter thing, and waiting 8 months just to get a rejection SUCKS. Like there’s no better word for it. It sucks. Honestly, I feel so exhausted from those starting years of sending again and again to lit-mags that I almost never submit to journals anymore. And I’ve never been good at networking, being very present, saying “Hi! I write! And you publish! Let’s get together!” So, I think those are some of the biggest challenges, letting people know you are there.
My advice would be: be local. Stop caring about what The Kenyon Review or Poetry or jubilat or any other bullshit has to say about you and just go to a poetry reading within a 10 mile radius of where you live. If there isn’t one, make one. When you’re there, say hi to someone, at least one person, but you don’t have to push yourself. And ask them what they do and why they are at the reading. Don’t think the goal of that conversation is to make yourself known, but see how other people are existing in that local space. It’s as much your space as theirs so think to yourself “who is this person, why are they here, what do they do, and how can I learn more about them.” Good things come that way. Because then they get interested in who you are and what you do. Unless they’re total dicks, in which case you don’t want to meet them anyways. Write what you want to write and if you happen to find yourself with 20+ pages of writing, you can choose to publish that as a chapbook or full collection or whatever. And then deal with publisher bullshit after you know what your city and area has to offer you.
In Oil and Candle, you manage to find the perfect balance between high and low register moments. In what ways has your poetic voice changed or evolved over the course of penning and editing the book? In the spirit of that, how do you think you or your writing has changed from your first publication to now?
Well, thank you! That’s something a few people have said to me, mostly about “Limpias.” And I’m glad that “Limpias” has the effect of a really heavy mix of emotions. But I never meant to write it that way. In fact, the first time I read it and I heard people laughing at parts of it, I was like Oh! This is funny! They’re right and I was wrong. I thought I had written this really dramatic and desperate poem, and I had in some ways, but I also wrote something funny and thank God that I did. I’ve always cared about humor in my poetry but I’ve always wanted it centered around camp.
My first chapbook, JOGS, a strange self-published book about gay sex, was definitely the campiest and the funniest. It was a procedural book where I limited my vocabulary to what was available in the book The Joy of Gay Sex. It was an attempt to re-write that book. And though it’s not very good and I was far too young to attempt what I was attempting, I learned how to write from writing that book. The language of a gay self-help sex manual from the 1970’s has somehow always stayed in my voice, a certain kind of hoarseness. That is something I’m really thankful for. If I hadn’t written that book, I’d probably still be writing the stuff I puked out in high school. And from there I got better, more efficient, more decided. But I always strive for the tragic jokiness of that first project.
And, finally, what’s next for Gabe?
I’m currently working on a manuscript called Jazzercise is a Language, which is an extended analysis and reflection on Jazzercise and aerobics. If the book does have a central theme, it’s about spectacles of exclusion. Race, gender, class, etc, told through the amazing, colorful landscape of 80’s aerobics and body-shaping. Watching those tapes is such a fulfilling experience. I’d say I’m about 40% done writing it. It’ll take a bit of time to get out into the world, but I have good hopes for it. Hopefully, we’ll see it as a second book.