A Conversation with Tomás Q. Morín
BY DAVID RODERICK
Tomás Q. Morín is the author most recently of the poetry collection Machete and the memoir Let Me Count the Ways. He is a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts fellow. He teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts and Rice University.
David Roderick: You’ve shaped this new book of poems around the image of the machete, a tool that has multiple uses—it can be a farming tool or a combat weapon. Early on in the collection, a short lyric poem titled “Machete” begins,
When they stare
I know it is my skin
they fear, this face,
this hair so unlike theirs.
I meet their eyes
and make them sway
like fields of cane.
I’m hoping this is a good place to start because the last poem in the book, a much longer meditation titled “Machetes,” playfully critiques this first machete poem. Can you talk a bit about how these two poems interact?
Tomás Q. Morín: You know, a few months after finishing that “Machete” poem, I realized I had left something out of it—my humor. Writing the poem had emptied me of some of the anger I’d felt when I wrote it. It didn’t feel right to go back and try to add humor to it. Felt like that would be a violation of the poem in some way. So I thought, I should write another poem on the same subject but try to be more balanced in that one, more fully myself. Then to my surprise the new poem, “Machetes,” started speaking back to the shorter one! I thought, okay, this is new, something I haven’t done before, so I decided to have fun with it.
DR: The machete is set up as a metaphor in that first poem I’ve cited. It has density and weight. In “Machetes” you step back and allow so much else into an extended, fast-and-loose lyric poem: humor, anecdotes, digressions. Would you say that the machete is an instrument that helped generate these poems, or does it have some kind of personal meaning for you? It’s so arresting I have to resist going down my own machete rabbit hole while I sit here typing, just one screen away from my search engine.
TQM: Machetes are like poems in that they can be used in different ways. I’d be lying if I said that it didn’t bring me a bit of sadness to think of a machete being used as a weapon. If you live in a place where you and all the people around you who work the land have machetes, it would make total sense to raise this tool of life to defend yourself if you had nothing else. Sometimes poetry is a tool for survival and rebellion. Survival has been one of my most consistent topics in my work because it was the central question of my childhood: how do my family and I survive my late father’s drug addiction? Years of therapy and distance from those events have given me this bird’s-eye view. It wasn’t until recently when I saw the pattern book to book that I understood how it arose from my life.
DR: That’s a lot of responsibility for a kid to carry. Auden famously wrote in his elegy to Yeats, “Ireland hurt you into poetry.” Maybe those of us who write poems were all “hurt” into it somehow. It sounds like that’s what you’re describing here.
TQM: I’ve always loved that Auden quote about Yeats. It’s a paradox because writing poems brings me so much joy.
DR: I don’t detect as much sadness in this book. There’s more anger though, which you’re determined to keep in check. Near the end of the long “Machetes” poem you suggest that you’re chasing after some kind of “angry-funny” or “funny-angry” balance. It strikes me that several of these poems begin with some angry impulse but then bend toward humor or self-mocking.
TQM: I’ve always felt really close to the blues and I think that’s an undercurrent in my work for sure. I’ve never really been good at expressing anger. When anger wells up, I often go into sleep mode like a computer. It’s something I’m still working on in my life. So making room for anger in my poems is huge for me. Humor is a way to provide some balance.
DR: One characteristic I admire in your books is that they explore lyric, meditative, and narrative elements. Singing, thinking, storytelling. Do you think about those categories much? Does one of those modes come more naturally for you?
TQM: I love those modes, especially when poets combine all three in one poem. Phil Levine was a master at doing this. Elizabeth Bishop, too. Those were my early models. Natalie Diaz does it, as does C. Dale Young. Ultimately, I just follow the poem where it wants to go, though. As Levine often said, the poem is usually smarter than you are.
DR: Speaking of Phil Levine, could you talk more about your relationship with him? I know you co-edited an anthology of essays (Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine), but I haven’t heard the backstory. Were you his student at one point?
TQM: I miss him. He was a friend and an inspiration on and off the page. Talk about someone who could balance anger and humor in a poem! He was a master of that, and so much more. He was the outside reader of my MFA thesis. One of the great perks of the MFA at Texas State is that you can choose a luminary to read your thesis. After that experience we started corresponding and became close. I wish I had taken a class with him!
DR: That’s amazing! So you picked Phil Levine as your luminary reader and then what happened? How did you correspond? Can you share some Levine chestnuts?
TQM: I sent him a thank you for the notes he made on my thesis. He was surprised because he had been hard on the poems. Fair, but hard. One chestnut was his expressing how surprised he was when ⅔ of the way through the thesis a neighbor showed up in a poem. At that point he realized my thesis was empty of people. There was only my voice and that was it. His nudge to make room for the world, and the people in it, was huge for me. Another chestnut became the inspiration 15 years later for the poem “Tried and Untrue” in Machete, a poem in which he makes a cameo.
DR: Are there specific poems of his you return to for inspiration or sustenance?
TQM: His poem “The Doctor of Starlight” is one I carry close with me always. Do you know it?
DR: I don’t. Let’s drop a link to it here.
TQM: It’s wild and stunning and full of so much duende.
DR: Absolutely. I’m going to carry it around for a while. The expansiveness expressed in “The Doctor of Starlight” reminds me of your poems.
One thing I’ve always admired in your work is how well you execute the long, run-on sentence poem packed with swerves and various forms of information. In this book “112th Congress Blues,” “Stanza,” and “Goosestep” are constructed as run-ons that sweep so much into them and almost spiral out of control. It seems like the process of writing those poems must be different from others you’ve written in which the lines are more controlled.
TQM: Those poems came out of a period of years when that was all I could write. Or rather, that style seemed to be the only one that was carrying any kind of fire for me. The other part of it was that whenever I would drop a period into a poem back then, the poem would click shut! This was much to my dismay if I felt like I hadn’t said everything I wanted to say yet. So I had to get resourceful with conjunctions and figure out how to extend the sentence as long as I could before a period shut it down. The muse has released me from that style and so now I can write in it if I like or not.
DR: I can see that. I love those fast-paced poems but can see you mastering other pacing strategies in Machete. More contemplation, more dwelling in moments. There are a few poems about fatherhood and parenting, like “Vallejo,” in which you address a child while pushing his stroller, and “Two Dolphins,” a longer meditation on parenthood. Is it ridiculous to suggest that the rhythms of parenting, like strolling or rocking a child, have created opportunities for your poems to slow down?
TQM: Not ridiculous at all. Being a parent has made me not just slow down more, but also pay more attention. It’s like my attention has grown exponentially. Not only is my attention sharper, but I also now carry what the kids pay attention to, as well.
DR: I admire how these poems, in which you exert more control over the pace, don’t hamper your swerves and leaps and the occasional non-sequitur.
TQM: You know, I wondered who I would be after becoming a parent. Turns out I’m still me, just a little slower, in more ways than one. Thanks, pandemic! But on the page, I’m more apt to linger now, instead of making the next associative leap. Another way in which I’ve slowed poems down is that when I make what in the past I would’ve called a mistake, instead of revising it out, I’ll let it stand and point it out. For example, on the first page of “Two Dolphins.” On a larger scale, revisiting the poem “Machete” with the much longer “Machetes.” I feel this type of “showing my work” moves me one step closer to that style Elizabeth Bishop was a master of, that style that “dramatizes the mind in action rather than in repose.” This was how she described the movement of John Donne’s sermons.
DR: I’m rereading “Two Dolphins” and looking for this moment. I suppose the part you’re talking about begins six couplets into the poem:
… I’m so
disoriented right now
by the imaginary
sheet of words
I just invented
that six lines ago
I wrote “next to words,”
when what I meant
to write was “next
to pictures.” And even
the whole business
of that water hose
simile is odd,
but not in the good way…
I like what you said about dramatizing the mind in action. Definitely not something I’ve thought much about, though one of my heroes, James Tate, would often reverse course or critique what he just wrote in some sort of comic way. Can you think of other poets who influenced you in this way?
TQM: I love it when Tate does that. Gerald Stern does this, too. The speakers in Ai’s monologues are often full of contradictions and surprise. I’ve read her poems for a long time and yet, they still surprise me when I reread them. Because it’s a poem I type up often whenever I need a fresh reminder of what’s possible, I have to mention Bishop’s “Crusoe in England.”
The folds of lava, running out to sea,
would hiss. I’d turn. And then they’d prove
to be more turtles.
DR: Can we return to Levine for a moment? You stressed earlier your desire to preserve the associative elements in your style, but Levine’s poems rarely allowed the sorts of leaps you make. “The Doctor of Starlight” looks very controlled when I read it beside your poem “Heretic That I Am,” which begins:
Three days now the mold
has advanced across the face
of the peach I caught
with one hand like Willie Mays,
saving it from the sidewalk
and its army of black shoes
and how could it happen
that my peach turned
into Castro, the young one
who regularly baptized
the microphone and the first row
of sleepy workers with his spit
and anger and love.
Traveling down these tangents with you feels like a thrill ride, but how do you know when the associative leaps and swerves work?
TQM: That’s a great question. I know the swerves work for me when after having set it aside for a few months, I reread it and feel excited. If I’m smiling while reading the poem, then it works for me. That’s only one half of the equation, though. The other half is figuring out whether the swerves work for a reader. And for this, I turn to friends I trust who won’t bullshit me. Whatever associations they don’t get, I work to clarify a bit. But not so much that I rub the surprise off. At the end of the day, my goal isn’t to write a poem in which every associative leap is understood. Rather, I’m trying to write a poem that makes a reader feel something. You saying that reading that poem feels like a thrill ride makes me happy because you had an experience. You getting all, or some, of the associations is just icing on the cake.
DR: Are there other big formal or technical challenges you’re taking up? Something that’s intimidating but you need to try? A method? A mode?
TQM: The big challenge I’ve been chasing for the last couple books is writing the most full book possible that also contains the least amount of poems. Geography III is my model.
DR: That’s a high bar!
TQM: Very high! If I fail, which I probably will, I hope that it’ll at least be a spectacular failure. I’d rather do that than only try for things I’ve done before. Of all the times I’ve read Geography III, I’ve never once felt like the 10 poems it contains were not enough. Sure, one could argue that maybe it would really be a chapbook if the typeface were not larger than usual. Would it be less pages? Sure. But would it still feel like a full book? Absolutely. My other model is Coltrane’s My Favorite Things. Four songs. Just four songs and yet that album feels richer than some albums that have five times as many tracks. Slowing down time and lingering is key, something that prose writers know how to do all too well.
DR: Machete is spare in terms of length, though it does grasp after the expansiveness we’ve both mentioned earlier. Like Bishop, you excel at the bird’s-eye view. And now you’re writing prose! I can’t imagine leaping from such a spare, luminous poetry book to your upcoming memoir, Let Me Count the Ways, due in March. Your work on both of these books must have overlapped. What was it like toggling between the two of them? How long was writing a memoir in the cards for you?
TQM: I started drafting the memoir in 2014. Around that time I was reading a lot of Annie Dillard. She cautions somewhere that as writers we should take care with what memories we commit to the page because once we do, they tend to calcify and, as a result, stop changing with us as we age. In that moment I realized that many of the stories I had shared with people about my father, grandfather, and a man who was my dad in every way except biologically, would at some point change, details would be lost, events would condense, etc. Writing a memoir was a way to fix them, and their voices, in the way that I remembered them while I still could. In later drafts I came to understand how my anxiety disorder, OCD, was tied to my childhood and these men. So then the work was to bring these connections into the light as much as possible.
During the handful of years I worked on the memoir, I wrote very few poems. In 2015 and 2016, I only wrote one poem in each of those years. Once I had moved on to deep revisions and rewrites for the memoir, the poems returned in full force. In 2018 I put together an early version of Machete. This is all to say the books were written at different times. And while they each had their own winding path to the editors they landed with, they were picked up within a month of each other in 2020.
DR: I suppose when you’re working extensively in two genres, you notice differences in terms of what subjects and feeling tones they’re able to accommodate.
TQM: Absolutely. But at the end of the day, it’s all narrative. Everything I know about how to tell stories in poems, I built upon when I figured out how to write essays and memoir. God willing, if all goes to plan, this summer I’ll start a novel that I’ve been jotting notes about for the last few years. I haven’t written a single sentence of that novel yet, but the shape of it is floating in my mind now. Filling it will be an adventure. I hope it’ll be the same mix of humor and seriousness that is in many of my poems. At the end of the day, who I am is not really funny-angry or angry-funny, rather funny-serious.
DR: Funny-serious it is. By the way, we’d be doing Machete a disservice if we didn’t mention the incredible cover design. I love the roaring cartoon tigers set against that midnight blue backdrop. Was this a collaboration of some kind?
TQM: It was a collaboration in the funniest way. This was the first book for which I had zero ideas for the cover. What I did know was that for some new author photos I was going to wear this sweater I had recently bought as a way to celebrate selling the memoir. So I sent my editor Deborah Garrison a picture of the sweater. It’s the one I’m wearing on the cover of an APR issue last summer. What I didn’t know was that Deb would send the picture of the sweater to Bráulio Amado, the designer. One of the cover mock-ups had his take on the sweater’s tiger pattern and it was just too good to pass up. I feel so lucky to have been connected with him and that he also signed on to design the memoir cover. The fact Machete contains no tigers, although there are a couple of cougars, makes the whole thing even funnier. It’s a perfect example of the ways in which the absurd and the serious braid in my life. I wouldn’t have it any other way.