Resisting Taste, with Ruben Quesada
With Ruben Quesada
Interviewed June 24, 2017
Frederick Speers: Thanks for taking time to talk with me, Ruben, and for sharing your thoughts with the readers of Jam Tarts.
So much of your poetry seems to be about love and loss. Would you say you’re a love poet? And if so, what kind(s) of love do you write about?
Ruben Quesada: I can’t remember where I read this, maybe it was Nietzsche or Yeats, but all poetry is about love or loss. There are many poems I’ve written about love and loss. Of course, these emotions are at the heart of the human experience and sharing those emotions is something I love to do. Though, I wonder if you’re getting at something less esoteric. Being socially engaged sometimes means facing loss at so many levels and if you are engaged in community you have a love for people, but love and loss of this kind do not enter my work often. Were you to ask if I am a poet who writes about politics or do I write in response to current events? Rarely.
FS: “The personal is political.” This rallying cry is credited to the feminist movement of the 20th century, but it seems very relevant to today’s writers. What is your take on this?
RQ: It’s tough for me to say what is personal; we’ve come a long way from the decorum of Ann Landers or Miss Manners. The personal is not always political. I believe what is right is political.
Everything written may or may not be true. Regardless, it should appeal to the reader. Some people are great performers, imaginations are boundless. We should be careful what we call political. Necessity is indeed the source of freedom, said Muriel Rukeyser in The Life of Poetry. Write what you need to write, it will set you free.
FS: Is writing about love a freeing act, though? You must be in love with the idea of loss to make it part of your life.
RQ: To focus one’s life on writing about love and loss is to love them both. I am in love with loss, and I love being in love. Like so many people, I’m trying to come to terms with loss constantly. Every day there’s something to face, minor or major losses, the scale makes no difference but it’s what allows you to be a better person. Or you let yourself get taken down day to day by losses and you’ll find yourself under a pressure that is unlike unattended emails after a week off. It can be overwhelming but you’ll get through it and you’ll be better off in the end. Just come to terms that you’re not going to get everything you want done today, sometimes you’ll get none of it done.
I find that I’m also always trying to lose something. When I was younger, I wanted to lose body hair. Now I want all of it. Now I’m constantly counting calories so I know what I need to lose. I wish I’d lose my phone sometimes. I’m kidding! That would be an enormous loss on so many levels.
The perception of loss is relative. There is much to gain when we lose something we love.
FS: Tell us a bit about how your poems come into being. How do you know when a poem is finished?
RQ: I don’t know if they do finish. I believe poems change; they’re reborn as something else. It’s all part of the poet’s universe. We might write a poem about the exact same thing but from an entirely new perspective. The poem is done when the vision has been shared.
FS: You’re not only a writer and poet; you’re also an editor, a collector and publisher of other people’s work. Can you talk about your editorial ethos and your process? How do you choose what works to encourage and which writers to promote? And what motivates you to do this important work?
RQ: I’m excited to think about life. To sit in silence and simply think about one moment down to its final detail. To step into it, around it, before and after it has happened. But to capture a single sliver of that scene and draw it out to fill the images and ideas that drew me to that moment is exciting and hard. It takes focus. Something I didn’t have always have. I don’t suffer from ADD though I think I did because my doctor prescribed me adderall. Or it could have been what doctors did then for people like me who had trouble focusing.
There’s a lot happening in the world of poetry and literature. There are so many role models to look to. There was a recent tweet about being the light and inspiration for someone. Just like there are people in the world, there is a writer and a reader for all kinds of people. I read and celebrate who I can and when I can. I can’t do it all though sometimes it may feel that way. I encourage everyone whether I do it directly or not. I hope that my own passion for poetry and community inspires writers to support those who are passionate about them.
I am motivated by the sounds and rhythms of words. If there were a way to put random words together that sounded nice and still be understood I’d be in heaven. I hope I’m around when mind reading, telepathy, becomes a thing and we’re still capable of speaking. I’ll speak the way I speak to my cat with jumbled words and sounds that cause him to perk his ears. He doesn’t know what I’m saying but he understands eventually because of my body language, but the words coming out of my mouth don’t mean a thing.
FS: Are there types of writing (or writers?) that you wish to discourage? For example, when you review books, have you ever given a scathing review to send a message?
RQ: There have been a few times when I was either in my MFA or PhD program that I had such strongly held beliefs about aesthetics and about process (poetics) that I became disheartened by the state of literary publishing. These were brief, albeit ridiculous, notions conjured up by my position of privilege in higher education that I do not wish to revisit. As I’ve gained more experience as a writer, editor, and reader it has become clear that the types of writing are reflective of a people’s experience. To discourage any one particular voice from speaking is to discourage the presence of life. We know life is painful, but we’ll get through it as long as everyone is given access to expression.
I rarely write reviews. A good review acknowledges the work a writer has done well. It is an opportunity for a reviewer to celebrate what they loved, but also what was frustrating or challenging about the work. Ultimately, a review should appeal to a reader’s curiosity for story. A scathing review doesn’t seem interesting to me, so I wouldn’t bother with it.
FS: You mentioned your MFA and PhD programs. You used to be an assistant professor of English, but within the last couple of years, you left that post to pursue other activities. What prompted that departure, and have you been happy with your decision?
RQ: I took a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of English immediately after receiving my PhD. I went right to work and it was a reasonable teaching load of 3/3, with the usual expectations of publication, but the service commitment was unreasonable. I was encouraged to say NO to committee requests, special interest groups, and student advising, but ultimately the context of the situation made it nearly impossible for me not to have some interest in service commitments and eventually it became impossible for me to do what I’d entered into the academy to do: to teach and to write. The story is long, but to be brief, a queer, Latinx person in academia is challenging. You’re pulled in many directions for many people for both good and bad reasons. I decided that I needed to change how I spent my time and I needed to find a community of Latinx and queer people, so I moved to Chicago and left academia.
FS: Of the poets and writers not living today, who do you turn to most often? And why?
RQ: At one point in my life the majority of writers I read were those who were dead. That’s what school teaches us to do and that’s all I knew. I didn’t grow up around people who read often or who knew about contemporary writers. The closest thing I had to a contemporary text was going to see a new film release and in the 1980s that was a lot of classic horror and John Hughes films. The 80s were horrific for most of Americans as is reflected in the films of that time, but my understanding of that wouldn’t come to me until I was an adult. So I turned to dead writers, as I do sometimes today.
FS: What words of advice would you give young writers today?
RQ: Read everything, and don’t think you know shit until you have.