A Conversation Between Aldo Amparán and J. Estanislao Lopez
Aldo Amparán is the author of Brother Sleep (Alice James Books, 2022), winner of the 2020 Alice James Award. They have received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and CantoMundo. Their work has been published in the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day, Poetry Magazine, The Adroit Journal, Best New Poets, New England Review, and elsewhere.
J. Estanislao Lopez is the author of We Borrowed Gentleness (Alice James Books, 2022). His poems have been featured in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, The Adroit Journal, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. He lives in Houston and teaches at Houston Community College.
J. Estanislao Lopez: Hi, Aldo! I am so excited to share this space together.
Aldo Amparán: Hi, Josh! Likewise, it’s such a pleasure and an honor to talk with you about We Borrowed Gentleness and our work.
JEL: I had such a multifaceted reading experience with Brother Sleep. As a poet, but also as Latine, a Texan, a lover of mythology, and more. At the center of the book, two sets of brothers—Thanatos and Hypnos as well as a set of brothers who have perhaps a stronger autobiographical context—revolve around each other, juxtapose against one another, and perhaps, ultimately, enmesh. How did those mythological figures help or hinder entrance into your own personal space of grief?
AA: As I ponder over this question, I think back to the earliest stages of my manuscript while I was an MFA candidate. Writing the first few poems felt cathartic, but it also instilled a feeling of utter vulnerability I wasn’t sure I was ready to display. This was especially true because I set many of the poems in a time of extended grieving. Some of the causes included the loss of my grandfather and, that same year, the passing of two close friends I came to see as brothers. I was also grappling with my sexuality, with coming out in a strictly religious environment. The mythological figures of Hypnos and Thanatos arrived later, as I structured the manuscript, to help me distance myself from the speakers in my poems. This distance also allowed me ways to speak freely about my immediate family. The figures of these brothers also helped me contextualize the mythology of having my friends become, through poetic voice, the speaker’s brother. To make them family in the written word.
We Borrowed Gentleness explores many aspects of family. There’s a recurring notion of inheritance in beautiful and complicated ways: life stories, prayer and faith, a sense of nationhood, to name a few, are all passed on across generations, at times cherished, confronted, lost. Was it difficult for you to enter your own personal space and translate those complex emotions to the page? What resources (be it poetic technique or otherwise) best helped you enter the poem’s emotional core?
JEL: It was hard to interrogate particular narratives, especially those framed from autobiographical materials. I avoided autobiographical writing for the majority of my writing life, in fact. Ultimately, though, I came to realize how vital those narratives are to my overall sense of the world. I think it’s a responsibility of the poet to interrogate all these received narratives, and to do so with a commitment to truth—not empirical truth, but truth in the sense of a confrontation with the consequences of the speaker’s action or inaction, their entanglement and complicity. I open the book with a short meditation on the nature of evil, which was a very formative concept for me. The religious mythology surrounding the idea of evil is perilously faulty, but there’s an essential truth buried there. After all, it was the seeking of knowledge that is considered mankind’s first sin, according to the myth of The Garden. I might be going off the deep end at this point. To bring it back, I tried to do justice to these speakers and characters, but justice is not always kindness. That commitment kept the poems centered, and, ultimately, it helped the book cohere.
How do these poetic elements coexist in your writing process? Play and confrontation; music and truth. Richard Hugo has that idea about there being two approaches to poetry: that all truth must conform to music, or that all music conform to truth. Perhaps a false dichotomy. Do you find yourself orienting these elements in specific hierarchies, or do you somehow free yourself of those constructs altogether as you write?
AA: There’s a dream I had after my grandfather’s funeral that I remember constantly: I wake up in a room I don’t recognize. It’s been stripped of color. It has cement walls, a white mattress, and a window I rise to look out from. Outside, there’s a wide field that’s burning in the distance, and someone is shoveling dirt out of a hole. I mention this because many of the images in my poems come from dreams, and one of the earlier poems in my collection (“Litany with Burning Fields”) borrows a lot of its imagery and sound from that dream. The earliest version of this poem includes descriptions of the room. They seemed important at the time because they portrayed an emptiness, a lack. As I understand it, I relate this to Hugo’s concept of truth, and in that instance, I guess there is a kind of preference for precision in language, but I also recognize that a lot of times truth and confrontation play an integral part in grounding the poem. What else would music transmit if not a kind of truth?
One of my favorite things about reading and writing poetry is the way a poet manipulates language to create patterns, to break them, to surprise the reader; a sentence that lingers long beyond its expected end while still sounding organic, for instance, or line breaks that not only create a sense of rhythm but a multiplicity of meaning between line and sentence. There’s a great deal of play in deciding where to end a sentence, a line, how the line is functioning with, or struggling against, the silence of white space.
I love that you mentioned your book’s opening poem, “A Metaphor,” and its meditation on evil. Not only does the poem attach a precise, unexpected image to the abstraction that is evil, but it also complicates it in its two last and haunting lines. Later, the poem “Little Words” begins by describing hatred as letters that “harden into a strange cartilage” inside the speaker’s body. These are just a couple of early instances where you transform abstraction into a visceral and beautiful image—where you take the invisible and make it visible through language. How important is it for you to do this in poetry? What value does abstraction have in your writing process?
JEL: I’ve given a lot of thought recently to these two elements in poetics: the concrete and the abstract. Obviously, a good image does so much in terms of sensory stimulation and immersion for the reader. But immersion can be created through other means, particularly voice. I think we are actually turning a corner right now away from a writing culture that venerates the image. The image has often been misused to subordinate the reality of feeling and thought. I have listened to many craft talks about why physical material, concreteness, is what makes a poem sing, which I find rather ridiculous considering lyric poetry is historically a poetry of directly stated feeling. Imagery can make a poem memorable, since our visual memory is so much stronger than our verbal memory, but memorability is not the heart of poetry. So I definitely do not shy away from the abstract. It is where most of my poems start. I find that imagery is important to most poems’ overall success, but I don’t want to suggest that the production of such imagery is a poetic imperative. One of my favorite poems of all time, one I teach at every chance, is completely imageless. Lucille Clifton’s “Why People Be Mad at Me Sometimes.” When I do employ imagery, I treat that language according to the unique criteria of poetic concreteness, but my sensibility is to always look at the image afterwards and think about its moral and cultural implications, and how I might go about mining those out.
If I can go back to what you said about that lingering and organic quality that appears in your book, I was very curious about that! As I read your collection, I kept noticing a pattern of resistance to closure—whether it be syntactic closure, formal, or even elegiac closure. The book discovers so many ways to complicate or negate endings. Fragmentation appears not as a violent rupture in the lyric mode but, as you say, a quality that gives the lyricism an organic fluidity. Did that quality occur as a deliberate motif in your book or as an unconscious emergence, or a bit of both?
AA: I believe such resistance to closure came organically as I wrote the poems, though I’m not sure I would call it an unconscious emergence. I began writing them, especially those dealing with loss (be it the death of a loved one, a breakup, or loss of identity), wanting to capture and question the feelings of my own experience; how grief lingered for years, and how I couldn’t really think of closure.
There’s a huge difference between the earliest elegies I wrote and the latter poems in the book. When I began writing the earliest drafts, I didn’t have knowledge of the traditional elements of an elegy. I began thinking about closure years later, when I was putting together the book. Considering the order of the poems, the breaking of sections, and the overall structure was maybe one of the hardest things in the process of writing this book, but it also made me consider the book’s arc, which had to do a lot with closure. I decided then that the poems’ order would offer maybe not closure, exactly, but some hope for consolation in the speaker’s not-so-distant future.
JEL: I think that is something both of our books share: a desire to arc towards some kind of hope, despite the overwhelming forces that push us elsewhere. These are our debuts into the American literary landscape, and we are early-career poets, but don’t you get the sense that hopefulness was for other generations and not our own? Maybe every generation feels that way, but I get a sense that we are witnessing rather acutely how cyclical history can be.
AA: It makes sense that each generation seems to grow more and more aware of the immensity and unavoidability of endings, and so we become more cynical to the idea of hope. Because of this, I often find comfort in media (film, literature, etc.) that is utterly hopeless or that at least makes you dig deep to find hope within its subtext. I understand the appeal for it and it has impacted my own work as a poet and writer. At the same time, I think hope is a necessary factor in bringing forth change. Why else would people fight for a better future—for social justice and environmental awareness—if not for that glimmer of hope?
This is such a complex question. It made me consider the many roles hope and hopelessness have in influencing not only literature but life. If it’s true that in my book, hope comes as a form of closure or consolation, I feel that your book arrives at hope with the titular gentleness. Could you talk about your process of arriving at the book’s structure, at its arc toward gentleness/hope? And what does gentleness mean to you as a poet?
JEL: I really wrestled with the decision to end the poem, “At Last, Surrender” in that space of possible grace or gentleness between the father and the son. I ended up being satisfied with certain undermining features of that poem, so that tension in the relationship was not fully resolved. It was very important to me that the last sentence in that poem suspend judgment in a way that allows the resentment and aspirations of that relationship to coexist. Gentleness is not something I was taught as a child. In fact, familial and cultural forces very violently tried to cull gentleness out of me. I didn’t have the language to be critical of machismo at the time, but I did know that whatever it was my mother and father expected of me, I couldn’t give them. Though I found myself to be a square peg in a round hole, those expectations did manage to warp my thinking in ways I’m still learning to undo. So gentleness, in my psyche, sits surrounded by turbulence and instability. Something I can touch but don’t feel completely confident that I can claim as part of my own essence. My biggest hope I guess is not for myself but for my children—that they, especially my son, won’t perceive gentleness the way I do, as the folded tissue of a core woundedness, but as something wholly natural, healthy, and abundant. Not as something borrowed, but claimed as their own.
I want to thank you, Aldo, for your time and conversation. I look forward to seeing your book make its way through the world and into the hands of readers who will surely be touched, held, and mesmerized by your work.
AA: Thank you so much for sharing this space, Josh—for your insight; for your words! Likewise, I can hardly wait to see your wonderful book out in the world!