Hello, and thank you for joining us again for Lyric Essentials! This week, we are pleased to hear from Amanda Gomez, who reads poetry from Miguel Hernández to us and chats about viewing poetry as a tool for hope and teaching literary citizenship through exposure to diverse writers. Thank you for reading!
Erica Hoffmeister: Why did you choose these two particular poems by Miguel Hernández to read for Lyric Essentials?
Amanda Gomez: Despite the fact that Miguel Hernández is one of the most popular 20th century Spanish poets, I am very new to his work. I purchased The Selected Poems of Miguel Hernández, edited by Ted Genoways, last year, but it was not until this spring that I began to read his work. It seems easy to say that I chose to read Hernández work because I have just recently finished reading his work, but I think it is his urgency that compels me. With everything going on around us, the pandemic and the ways in which it has exacerbated the inequities of our systems, police brutality and the murders of innocent Black lives, systems of oppression that continue to exist, I wanted to return to someone who has come before, and Hernández is that person for me at the moment. Hernández fought for the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and both of the poems I decided to read were written by him from jail after having been imprisoned by Francisco Franco.
The first poem I chose, “Lullaby of the Onion,” was the very first poem of Hernández’ work that I was introduced to, and it is probably his most well-known poem. Hernández wrote the poem in response to a letter from his wife in which she details how she and their child were starving, and the child was malnourished having only onions and bread to eat. Hernández resists despair throughout this poem. It is not just a love poem, but a political poem: he illustrates the poet’s work is not simply to witness the moment but to reimagine a new future.
The problem with imagination, however, is that it’s rooted in our bodily experiences, and if left unchecked becomes dangerous, which is why I’ve also chosen “The World is as it Appears.” Here, Hernández’ hopeful tone is more restrained. In one line he writes, “[n]o one has seen us. We have seen / no one,” highlighting the ways in which we flatten the identities and experiences of others and conflate them with our own, reducing our capability for compassion and empathy. And while this is human error, I think we could interrogate this idea further as to how power interacts with these moments. For instance, I am reminded of D. L. Hughley who said, “The most dangerous place for Black people to live is in White people’s imagination.” I am fearful that we as a country will continue to remain blind, “blind as we are from seeing,” as Hernández ends the poem. But if there is some consolation, it is that “[i]t takes work and love / to see these things with you.”
In choosing these poems, I wanted hope for the future. Hope for now, but I can’t see that hope being viable without looking back to the past.
EH: In our emails, you mention Don Share reading his translation of Miguel Hernández’ poem “Lullaby of the Onion” as your introductory point to Hernández’ work. What about that experience of hearing that poem aloud resonated with you so deeply?
AG: Listening to Don Share read the poem was enthralling for me. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing, which was driving in my car, and just as he began the poem, I was parking in a gravel parking lot outside of a local coffee shop. I could not get out of the car until I had listened to the entire poem on repeat multiple times.
I am drawn to people’s voices. A speaker’s intonations and pauses are just as interesting to me as the words. In the act of listening, I am learning about the writer and the speaker, and sometimes those identities are shared in the same person and sometimes those identities are shared by two different people, but I find listening an erotic act. I can’t imagine anyone reads the same poem the exact same way every time. We linger in places that hold our attention more, and those places speak to us at very finite points in time. So for me, I could hear the nostalgia in Share’s voice in the places his voice warmed, knowing he’d read it many times.
However, I will admit that while listening to the poem was a great moment, reading the poem was a very lackluster experience the first time. It took multiple readings for me to come to my own appreciation and understanding of the poem.
EH: Has Hernández’ work influenced your own writing in some way?
AG: I would still say I am new to Hernández’ work, so I can’t exactly say how he has influenced my writing directly. I can say that Hernández’ imagery has stuck with me. He ends his poem “A Photograph,” by saying, “a picture accompanies me,” and I enjoy how much weight he places on the image. In one poem, there are “rustling eyelashes of the canefield,” and in another poem, “there is an orchard of mouths.” It is hard not to walk away from one of his poems without remembering these phrases, reminding me to always continue to invent new ways of seeing everything around me.
EH: How does your teacher-writer relationship impact the poetry that you read and/or teach?
AG: Being a writer has definitely impacted the way I teach and what poetry I teach. It wasn’t until graduate school that I encountered poets outside of the canon, Latinx poets that I could relate to and identify with, and I think that is such a travesty. I don’t want my students having to wait that long to find authors that look like them. I make it a priority to focus on QTBIPOC writers. I want author identity to be important to my students, though I do worry that my students come to the page to reassert their own opinions or biases rather than to confront them. I try to incorporate as many writers as possible to confront this concern and dialogue with them.
I’m also thinking about ways in which to teach my students the importance of literary citizenship. Many of the writers I choose are contemporary writers because I want them to think about the ways in which art serves us and how we can reciprocate. I also try to maintain some sort of balance between books published by large presses and small presses, so students can think about and talk about access to art as well.
EH: Lastly, is there anything you are currently working on that you’d like to share with our readers?
AG: Yes! My first chapbook, Wasting Disease, will be available in October through Finishing Line Press, and it is available for pre-order now. I am also working on a hybrid work that could probably best be described as lyrical essay. Growing up, most of my education came through television and movies. My parents were fascinated with American lore, and it was always a bit eerie to me. My dad especially loves Western movies, and so the piece is an exploration of John Wayne and his wives, a characteristic someone once described as the most “un-American” thing about Wayne. My primary focus is his second wife, Esperanza Baur, and I want to think through and reimagine her history as it’s hard to see her clearly past the patriarchal whitewash. At least, that’s my opinion.
Miguel Hernández is an early 20th century Spanish poet and playwright who gained fame as a political figure who wrote and read poetry during the Spanish Civil War. The son of an impoverished goat herder, Hernández was self-taught despite being discouraged and abused by his father for wanting to pursue writing. A member of the Communist Party of Spain, Hernández was arrested several times for his anti-fascist views and wrote many of his works from jail, some poems as love letters for his wife. Hernández’ prison poems which were collected and published posthumosly as Cancionero y romancero de ausencia (Songs and Ballads of Absence). Throughout his lifetime, he wrote five books of poetry and six plays. He died in 1942 in prison, at the age of 31.
Amanda Gomez is a Latinx poet from Norfolk, VA, where she received her MFA in poetry at Old Dominion University. Some of her poems have appeared in Nimrod International Journal, North American Review, PANK, Tupelo Quarterly, and Writers Resist. Her chapbook, Wasting Disease, which was awarded 2nd Honorable Mention in the New Women’s Voices Competition, is now available for pre-order through Finishing Line Press.
Erica Hoffmeister is originally from Southern California and earned an MFA in Creative Writing and an MA in English from Chapman University. Currently in Denver, she teaches college writing and is an editor for the Denver-based literary journal South Broadway Ghost Society. She is the author of two poetry collections: Lived in Bars (Stubborn Mule Press, 2019), and the prize-winning chapbook, Roots Grew Wild (Kingdoms in the Wild Press, 2019). A cross-genre writer, she has several works of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, articles and critical essays published in various outlets. Learn more about her at http://ericahoffmeister.com/