In anticipation of his fifth poetry collection, The Valley, and its 2021 debut, Sundress Publications author Esteban Rodriguez sat down with our Editorial Intern, Lee Anderson, to discuss emptiness, memories, and how syntax can bring family back together.
Lee Anderson: The pictures throughout the book were originally taken by your mother and sister, Maria and Iris Pérez. Tell me about your decisions to use their pictures, which ones to place, and where you placed them.
Esteban Rodriguez: When I originally conceived of The Valley, I knew I wanted photographs included, not necessarily in the ekphrastic sense (although the photos can undoubtedly be seen in that light), but as a way to compliment the poems and visually document the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley (located in deep South Texas—no, not San Antonio, think five hours south). I read Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald in grad school, and I was quite fascinated by the way he included photographs throughout his novels. For me, they don’t so much as add to the novels as they do accompany the texts, and if I could do the same, in a poetry collection, then why not?
I live in Austin, and my visits to the Valley have become less frequent throughout the years. But my family still lives there, and I asked if they would be willing to undertake a small project in the spring/summer of 2019. My mother had just retired, and my sister, who’s dabbled in photography over the years, had just graduated from nursing school and had some free time on her hands before she began work.
There was no way not to include first photo at the beginning of the collection, which is the house that I grew up in. It’s quite old now, and my aunt lives there, and visually, I think it embodies many houses throughout the Valley, especially those in the colonias or that aren’t defined by the city limits of Weslaco (my hometown). Each photo is meant to add to the overall narrative, as well as show the places that I would frequent with my family—the border between the U.S. and Mexico, church, Downtown McAllen, South Padre Island, all of which have, in some shape or form, defined me.
LA: Homemade medicine and cures are common motifs throughout the book, often intersected by family and self-reliance. Considering especially the lines “her body like all bodies not immunized / to the circumstances they’ve inherited” (from “Recuerdo: Wardrobes”), how does medicine work in terms of passing down tradition?
ER: Growing up, my family was very wary of going to the doctor’s office, especially my grandmother, who was from Mexico. It was recommended we try home or over-the-counter remedies first (Vicks, Robitussin, prayers and prayer candles under the bed), and if that didn’t work, then a few days rest—no doubt in my mother’s and grandmother’s eyes—would do the trick. What wasn’t so easily revealed to us (us children that is), is that our access to insurance and therefore medical services wasn’t always available, and if it was (my mother did work for the state of Texas), the bills that would results from a visit, or even a hospital stay, were much greater than we had budgeted for the month. We had to rely on what we had, and hopefully that was enough to get us through another day.
LA: Can you speak to the recurring images of circuses, fairs, and fairgrounds?
ER: The Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show and Rodeo happens every year in the Valley in March (usually during Spring Break), and growing up, this was definitely one of the events to look forward. I have always been fascinated with fairs and circuses because of the promise they offer—adrenaline on every roller coaster ride; small and large prizes and rewards at every booth; satisfaction with funnel cakes, turkey legs, and cotton candy. What was there not to love about the Stock Show? What is common throughout the Valley too is traveling circuses and carnivals that pop up throughout the year. You can usually find them off an empty lot of some frontage road, and with them there are families that show up, walking throughout the grounds, hoping to experience something beyond the ordinary, even if just for a night.
LA: In “Recuerdo: Summer, 1996” you write, “and the world has moved on / framing the horizon with heavy-handed themes // of loneliness and loss.” How does the heaviness of loneliness and loss in the world intersect with, or contradict, your own visions of solitude throughout the book?
ER: In many ways, it’s hard not to feel that the Valley lives in a bubble, especially as a child when it appeared that the entire world existed outside of the Valley. When I tell people who are not familiar with Texas (and even some that are) that I am from South Texas, they automatically think of San Antonio. I have to explain that I am from a town five hours south of San Antonio, near the Mexican border, and every time I do explain, I think of the limbo (or what feels like a limbo) that exits between San Antonio and the Valley. I don’t mean to snub everyone who lives in that area, but for me, and many of the people I grew up with, it wasn’t a whole lot more different than the Valley itself, and I think that is where the ideas of solitude come from in the book. No one, despite their claims otherwise, wants to be lonely, and perhaps writing these poems was a way to bring the loneliness out, to let the world serve as company to my past self.
LA: Many of these poems consider ideas of growing up and coming-of-age, yet it is not often the object of focus; when it is, such as in “McAllen,” the idea seems distant. How does the decentering of these sorts of rituals shift how we view ourselves and the world?
ER: I always have an eye on the past, and my first three poetry collections (Dust & Dust, Crash Course, and In Bloom) were primarily about my childhood. My fourth collection, (Dis)placement, departed from that narrative, focusing more on diaspora and violence through a surreal lens, and there are hints of that surrealism in the poem “El río” in The Valley. Having ideas of growing up and coming-of-age as the center of focus is, for me, important and I think it helps illuminate the way I view my upbringing, my identity, and the essence of the Valley, but decentering it, and looking at it from the outside oftentimes has the same effect.
LA: How do memories, such as those in the poems titled with “Recuerdo”, impact the way we view the past and affect the ways we think about our presents and potential futures?
ER: I think these poems help navigate the past more than they do the present or future. These poems were initially written years before the other poems in the collection, but I couldn’t find a way for them to fit in my previous books (and there were some of them that needed major revisions). In my view, these poems allowed me to explore more of the past than I thought was possible, looking at the landscape of my childhood home, my uncles and their obsessions, or how we sought to heal our bodies. When I exhumed them from the depth some nearly obscure computer file, I was able to connect with those moments more intimately, and it was quite cathartic to relive what I thought would be forgotten.
LA: How do you see the dichotomy, or overlap, of empty settings and people out of space in these poems?
ER: In the Valley, there are a lot of empty lots and spaces that have remained empty since I was a child. There are also empty buildings and plazas that were never rented out, and if they were, those businesses never seemed to last long. One of the most influential collections (and one that I continue to recommend to everyone who writes, not just poets) is Night of the Republic by Alan Shapiro, which explores public places throughout America—gas station restroom, supermarket, shoe store, convention hall. The poems are devoid of people, but people seem to haunt even corner of it, and there are many places in the Valley similar to that that I wanted to capture. I wanted the poem to mirror what I visually saw and having an unpunctuated narrative helped the ideas flow easier across the page. I am also a faithful reader of Cormac McCarthy’s works, and it’s definitely possible to use as little punctuation in your work.
LA: Tell me about the particular syntax of these poems, particularly the use of enjambment and blank spaces between phrases in individual lines.
ER: W.S. Merwin’s The Vixen was the foundation for my book, specifically with regards to the lack of punctuation and the enjambment. If you’ve read Merwin’s work, you know it’s infamous for its absence of periods, commas, semicolons, etc., and I wanted to explore my own work through this approach as well. But I wanted to distinguish the poems with titles of city names from the “Recuerdo” poems, mainly because the “Recuerdo” poems are meant to explore the past more thoroughly. These poems have spaces to indicate a pause and spread out the speaker’s thoughts (they also provide some breathing room for the reader).
LA: “El río” is a multi-page prose poem ending in three and a half pages of names. Can you speak to the narrative weight of that poem?
ER: My fascination with surrealism stems from the work of certain artists: Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Kay Sage, and Jeff Jordan, the artist who provided the artwork for three of The Mars Volta’s albums, Amputechture, The Bedlam in Goliath, and Octahedron (I should note The Mars Volta has been quite influential in my own writing, and the manner in which they could produce concept albums with such a lyrical, strange, and surreal force continues to be a source of inspiration).
“El río” is meant to document my father’s journey into the United States, but through a hallucinatory/surreal approach. The father in the poem finds himself in various and almost impossible places throughout his crossing, and the river plays a central role in how it defines his trek into another country, often times attempting to keep him from completing it. My father’s journey is by no means unique, and at the end of the poem you see names that are meant to be representations of those who have lost their lives trying to make a new and better life, especially those who have never been recovered or found.
LA: Which poem(s) in this collection is/are closest to your heart?
ER: I would say that I’m perhaps closest to the “Recuerdo” poems, mainly because they were poems that didn’t fit into prior books, and I was able to use them fittingly here. Paul Valéry said that a poem is never finished, but only abandoned. I’m not sure to what extend I agree with Valéry, but I no doubt salvaged these poems and found a home for them here.
Esteban Rodriguez is the author of the collections Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019), Crash Course (Saddle Road Press, 2019), In Bloom (SFASU Press, 2020) and (Dis)placement (Skull + Wind Press, 2020). His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, The Rumpus, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is the Interviews Editor for EcoTheo Review, an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for PANK and Heavy Feather Review. He lives with his family in Austin, Texas.
Lee Anderson is a nonbinary MFA candidate at Northern Arizona University, where they are the Managing Editor of Thin Air Magazine. They have been published sporadically but with zest, with work seen or forthcoming in The Rumpus, Columbia Journal, Unstamatic Magazine, and elsewhere.