Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week poet and educator John Sibley Williams has joined us to discuss the work of poet Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, what courage may look like, and the cutting details and musicality of a poem. As always, thank you for tuning in!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: We all have specific memories of the first time we picked up a specific book or read a favorite poet—when was the first time you discovered Marcelo Hernandez Castillo’s work?
John Sibley Williams: I was lucky to have discovered Castillo’s work purely by accident while shopping at my local independent bookstore. I was there looking for a specific book, but this stark, brilliant cover caught my eye. I opened to the first page and was immediately hooked by the simple complexity of its first lines:
Because the bird flew before
there was a word
This linguistic and philosophical conundrum was followed by:
years from now
there will be a name
for what you and I are doing.
This unexpected shift to the intensely personal while remaining elusively abstract truly caught me off guard. I ended up reading almost a quarter of the book right there, standing in a narrow aisle in a crowded bookstore. And I think I finished it later that night.
AH: I love the rich details and topics the poems delved into! What drew you to these poems specifically?
JSW: It’s so difficult to dismantle poetry that really speaks to you in order to pinpoint what exactly about it fills and breaks and then refills your heart with its music. But the musicality in Castillo’s work is definitely a part of its allure. Each line, phrase, syllable just seems to inspire and converse with the next, and the varied structures in every instance perfectly compliment its themes. But, beyond the evocative language and surprising shifts and richly universal themes, Castillo consistently strikes this astonishing balance between the concrete and abstract, the heartbreakingly intimate and highly conceptual. Everything just leaps off the page, demanding attention and careful consideration, while also asking us to throw all that out and simply sink unquestioningly into his world. There’s just this overarching sense that these poems were written specifically for me and at the same time specifically for everyone else. These poems are bridges across cultures and times, philosophies and deeply felt personal experiences.
AH: In the Los Angeles Times, a reviewer described Castillo’s work as “courageous.” For you, as a poet, what has courage looked like on the page?
JSW: “Courage” can take so many (often overlapping) forms in a poem. It can be striking out to attempt something wholly new, breaking with one’s usual conventions and stretching one’s creativity just shy of the breaking point. It can be making bold linguistic decisions that may or may not work, that could be monumentally moving or utterly ridiculous, but still choosing to walk that tightrope whether or not the poem “fails”. I know it’s a cliché, but isn’t it a beautiful thing to master failure? To take huge risks and just pray readers follow your leaps and twists and experimentations? But “courage” can also be deeply personal. Most of the poems I love know exactly when and how to break and then to heal me. There’s a sense of genuineness, an authentic vulnerability, an unspoken agreement that poetry is meant to be one half of a conversation, trusting readers to be that necessary other half. Trusting others with your own deeply felt truth is true courage.
AH: What have you been up to lately? Got any exciting plans (anything!) that’d you like to share?
JSW: Although I haven’t been writing new work as much as I’d like to due to my shifting focus on being the best father I can be to my twin toddlers, I’m honored and thrilled to have two new books forthcoming. “The Drowning House” (winner of the Elixir Press Poetry Award) and “Scale Model of a Country at Dawn” (winner of the Cider Press Review Book Award) are both due out this coming winter. Professionally, last fall I founded Caesura Poetry Workshop, an affordable online workshop series focusing on both poetry and publishing. Each month I’ve been offering new classes, and I’ve been incredibly busy fostering and learning from the community we’ve built together. Beyond the creative, though, I am spending most of my time and energy on my children. It’s a tough world to be brought up into, and there’s nothing more important to me than ensuring they’re prepared to meet it with open hearts, open minds, and a strong sense of themselves.
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is a poet, essayist, and translator. His collection Cezontle was selected for the 2017 A. Poulin Jr. Prize, and he is the author of the award-winning memoir Children of the Land. The first undocumented graduate from the Helen Zell Writers Program, he aided the establishment of Undocupoet Fellowship. His work has appeared in The New York Times, New England Review, and The Paris Review.
Discover more about Marcelo on his website.
Read his poem “Essay on Synonyms for Tender and a Confession.”
Purchase his collection Cezontle.
John Sibley Williams is the author of seven poetry collections, including Scale Model of a Country at Dawn (Cider Press Review Poetry Award), The Drowning House (Elixir Press Poetry Award), As One Fire Consumes Another (Orison Poetry Prize), Skin Memory (Backwaters Prize, University of Nebraska Press), and Summon (JuxtaProse Chapbook Prize). A twenty-six-time Pushcart nominee, John is the winner of numerous awards, including the Wabash Prize for Poetry, Philip Booth Award, Phyllis Smart-Young Prize, and Laux/Millar Prize. He serves as editor of The Inflectionist Review and founder of the Caesura Poetry Workshop series. Previous publishing credits include Best American Poetry, Yale Review, Verse Daily, North American Review, Prairie Schooner, and TriQuarterly.
Find his website here.
Read two of John’s poems in North Dakota Quarterly.
Purchase his poetry collection Skin Memory.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi is a multimedia artist and writer. She has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Barren Magazine, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She is the Co-Editor in Chief at both Mud Season Review and Juven Press, and reads for EX/POST Magazine. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com