Interview with John Martinez

John Martinez studied Creative Writing at Fresno State University in the late 70s and early 80s under the late Philip Levine. He now works as Chief Administrator for a reputable Los Angeles Law Firm. Since 2011, John has produced three books of poetry, two of which are being published by Izote Press, and will be ready for AWP in Washington in 2017. A few weeks prior to the release of this issue of Chaparral, Freddy Garcia was able to ask John about his poetry and his experience as Philip Levine’s student.

You’ve recently published a collection of powerful poems, Mi Sol, and have a forthcoming collection, A Tale of Submission, which will be released in August. Tell us a bi about your poetry collections.

Mi Sol is the very first book (in I don’t know how many years I’ve been writing) that I actually had the guts to put out. I’ve been destroying my poetry, for a good part of my life, and so, I am the only reader of my poems. Well, now Facebook allows me to throw out some drafts here and there, but in the past, it was just me. I have published on and off in anthologies, but I have recently made my work available to the public. Still, I feel my poems are unfinished. Mi Sol is a collection of Spanish poems that I published so that I can have something to offer, especially when I read in Baja and Tijuana. The poems were translated by Mario Escobar, a professor here in the LA area. He is very picky and pushy, actually, but doesn’t everyone need a friend who is just a perfectionist, especially when it comes to art and poetry? So, for about three years, I have been reading his translations across the border.

One of the poems from Mi Sol–a very ambitious, anti war poem–was published in a new anthology, by Editor Ana Chig (Tijuana), called “La Ciudad.” We hope to hear from her soon, as she will be presenting her anthology in Southern Cali very soon. The title poem, “Mi Sol,” is a very “airy” poem, one that has a “buzzed” out direction. Reading the poem, you want to stop and ask yourself, “What the fuck is this dude saying?” But keep reading, keep reading. It is my response to when the Aztec Calendar made the drastic change. We were told to go out and present ourselves to the Sun. The late poet, Francisco Alarcon told me, in a FB chat, to go out and present myself, to be humble before the sun. So I did. And in doing so, I started apologizing to the Sun–not just for me, but for my fellow man; humanity has never been as perfect as nature, as refined and profound, perfect, as the sun. So, I start throwing all of us under the bus, you know. At the end, I say, in a real dramatic way: “absorb me, into your gases, as I have always been there, in the molecular structure of the sun.” It’s a return, really; death is a return to the sun. So, it’s like a prayer, you know.

They like that poem in Mexico, and, at the book fair in TJ, I actually got into a debate with a Mexican intellectual (the guy was smarter than anyone I ever met) and was arguing on my choice of symbols. He said I was erratic, irresponsible, flagrant–that, while the power of the language was, in fact, effective, I need to carefully choose my symbols, and not mix them up. I was like, “I’m glad you liked the poem, homie.” I’m not going to stress about criticism. Hell, every line spoken is spoken as a result of one’s naive understanding. Let’s face it, nothing is absolute. So, then, I asked him why he was hanging around with the poets and not the intellectuals and he said, “Poet’s are crazy and, traditionally, more fun. Haha.” “Then shut up!” I thought. Then the book twists into deep existential musing. Poems about death…no book should be without at least five of those. And then, well, I talk about the injustices in our world. In a few poems, I speak of the girls of Juarez. How they are killed and Mexico doesn’t respond with enough investigation. Then, of course, love poems to my wife, and one where I got the color of the eyes wrong. Oh wow, she didn’t like that one (joking).

I have read, MI Sol, in Mexico and Baja before it was published. I have participated in many shows at CECUT, which is the cultural center in TJ, and I am, well, in love with TJ. The poets there are hardcore and very tough. I like the old school poets, like back in the day, and while Spoken Word is something very special, reflecting artistic takes on our current culture, it’s the brooding poets I like. TJ has the new Vallejo’s. They speak of injustices, with the honesty that only true experience can produce. And when you hear political criticism and, politically progressive poetry from them, you are usually hearing truth. I like truth. Also, I love the Spanish poets: Hernandez, Neruda, Vallejo, Blas De Otero…tough poets who wrote very human poems. They were trying to preserve it, actually, as humanity was at stake, at least the dignity of being human, was being trampled by the Fascist. Most of them wrote during that era. Many of them were killed. Lorca, for example and Hernandez, were both killed…Neruda too. You all should have already read the Spanish poets. But, TJ? Back to TJ; man, you got the tough poets out there and I am just a seeker of such movements. I am happy that they have accepted me. So, yeah, Mi Sol was written and published because I wanted, needed, to have a book to share at my readings in TJ and Baja.

As for A Tale of Submission, well, it is an interesting book. It is rather dark, and that just happened. The prologue is written by Michael (EM) Sedano, who is the Editor for the popular Latino Literary Blog, La Bloga. In his prologue, he addresses the reasons why I am so dark…I am dark because, out of darkness, comes light. There are some uplifting, philosophical pieces and some love poems, again written to my wife, Rosa. Many of the poems in A Tale of Submission were translated by Escobar and are in Mi Sol. Many of the more significant pieces, or the stronger pieces in Tales, are in Mi Sol, actually.

The title poem, “A Tale of Submission,” is about me going into a mental institution to see my son, who had wiped out in College (he’s just fine now, by the way) and, so, I go, like a father must, to visit his son. He is distraught, I am crying, he is crying, and so I start drawing from the deep sadness of the place. The colors, the chairs, the orderly, all add to this feeling, this poetic “touching” if you will. And then, I start questioning the validity of my own sense of “reality,” of the irony of what supposed to be, as it is called, “acceptable reality.” Nothing is concrete, that even the religious flyers on the cork board are bizarre, and, so, I start pounding the subject with imagery and, at the end, I find more reason to be in there with my son. But, reluctantly, almost cowardly, I hunch down and make my way out. As I am leaving, the absurdity of everything on my path is shelled out. My connection to the very light, the filament that helps me see, doesn’t inform, doesn’t explain how it is related to me, that everything around me was meant to alienate me from my own truth…And that my acceptance, my willingness to be alienated is my Tale…my submission, even with reluctance, is my choice. There is no other. It’s a wild poem, very emotional. I read that poem at a reading in Los Angeles, and I started to cry–I mean, fucking cry like a cryer who is holding back his tears. Afterwards everyone was like, “Are you okay?” Can I get you something?” But, you know, as Macho as I can be, some things are just sad. It’s a part of life and your response–your feeling of sadness–must be played out of you, like sweat…You have to sweat it out.

In an earlier conversation, you mentioned that you studied under Philip Levine. The poem “That Bungalow and You,” published in this issue of Chaparral, provides us with some details of your experience with Levine. If you don’t mind, would you share with us your experience working with Levine.

Yes, I was his student in the late 70’s and early 80’s. It was like poetry boot camp. Nothing was left hanging. Words were like science in that class, and everything was weighed against world literature. Levine was like a Meat Smoker of wisdom and literary knowledge. His accolades were all meant for a man of his power and talent: American Book Award, Pulitzer Prize for Literature, US. Poet Laureate. We would offer him our souls, and he’d pick at us, like pieces of a puzzle–showing us how, ineffective, we can be, how some pieces didn’t fit, and, of course, how to strive for perfection. I watched that guy ridicule poets in front of the class. He didn’t have a heart for stupidity. Not everyone is a poet, and so, the lesson is not the alternative. 70 students would begin his class and he’d kick out 80 percent, so that he could be left with a workable crew. I must admit, brag, that is, that I was never kicked out and was given only A’s. He liked me and my brother, Victor.

Levine was a literary God at the time, and remained one until his death. Well, he is still on top, as far as I am concerned. Reading Levine is like a pop guitar player, listening to Bach. You just have to sit back and listen, you know. The poem, “That Bungalow and You, is about a memory of sitting in his class, which was, usually, a Bungalow at the outer edge of the University. Again, I use the imagery of the room to extract meaning and the relationship between us. Those were great times. When you are young, your skin is alive, more than when you are older. Your perception and innocence is as gold as they are going to get. He got us in a time when there was a whirlwind of meaning, floating, sometimes unknowingly, around us like a swarm of bees.

What I learned from him is that there is much more to language and poetry than even the intent of the writer, a magical element, scientific, in which a poet must mine the good and bad of the poem; one must learn what the poem demands. This process is the weight lifting, the toning of the poem, and this is never easy, you know. He would have torn my book apart. I’m sorta glad he didn’t see it. Aw, maybe I would have liked him to give it a once-over. One of his most memorable lines for me was, “talent is 10 percent of writing a successful poem.” I guess that goes for every profession. Many students bailed out; in many instances, he told them, flat out: “You are not a poet…Choose another profession.” God help me, if he would have addressed me and my work with that tone. I would have probably quit. I mean, that’s how he made you feel. There are no teachers like him and there will never be.