Contributor Spotlight: An Interview with Eugene Gloria
Eugene Gloria’s explosive fourth collection of poems, Sightseer in This Killing City (Penguin, 2019), begins with “Implicit Body,” a poem that bursts into an invocation of “this legend of my betrayals, my disloyalty to my origins,” a litany of sorts that moves us toward this striking stanza that prophesizes the “spectacle” to come in the collection:
Hand me your gun, America,
And let my body be the soundtrack
to the spectacle of our recent events.
And we’re off, drawn into a book that interrogates both America as a concept and explores Filipino American identity through dreams, liner notes, songs, psalms, and odes, drawing from the history and presence and resources of both the United States and the Philippines to build an unforgettable “soundtrack” of a time of violence and also quiet, of vivid disruption and the music that fuels and soothes it. This collection is amped up, vibrant and voice-driven, a little wilder–in the best of ways– than Gloria’s previous collections, which I have long admired.
Gloria’s poems “Failure” and “Nurse Nacirema” from Sightseer in This Killing City first appeared in Issue 21 of Memorious, and “Failure” was recently featured on Tracy K. Smith’s podcast, The Slowdown. Eugene Gloria received the 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for poetry for his collection My Favorite Warlord (Penguin, 2012). His previous books are Hoodlum Birds (Penguin, 2006) and Drivers at the Short-Time Motel (Penguin, 2000), which was selected for the National Poetry Series and the 2001 Asian American Literary Award. He has also received a Fulbright Research Grant, a grant from the San Francisco Art Commission, a Poetry Society of America Award, a Pushcart Prize, a 2013 Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and a Fulbright Lecturer Award in 2017. He is the John Rabb Emison Professor of Creative and Performing Arts and Professor of English at DePauw University.
“Nacirema,” which is, of course, American spelled backwards, and which in your notes you attribute to Michael Arcega, and his “repurposing” of Horace Miner to examine Filipino American identity, is a significant presence in the collection. Could you elaborate on the roots of this shapeshifting character and concept, and your use of her as a figure that drives the collection?
“Nacirema” as a shapeshifting character is a way for me to initiate a conversation with the expanding boundaries of our American identity. She is, in many ways, fluid, personal, impersonal, mysterious, and occasionally, a stand-in for myself.
In “Thirteen Dreams and One Duterte,” the “Number3dream” is “Duterte is a verb as in ‘to be Duterted’ or /to be body-bagged, to be hunted as in a dream.” This conceit of the current state as a dream, in which one is hunted, is a powerful one, which seems to me to acknowledge the sort of global paralysis we see in response to the spread of violence and of terrifying regimes. Where did this “thirteen dream” structure come from? What drew you to the dreamlike structures and images that inhabit the book?
“Thirteen Dreams and One Duterte” is a surrealist version of a sonnet. It’s also a complicated love poem for the Philippines. I recently spent a semester teaching and writing in the Philippines through a Fulbright grant. I was born in Manila and moved to the United States at the age of eight with my family. The current president of the Philippines is waging a violent war on drugs, which has claimed close to 30,000 lives. Hit squads and extrajudicial killings have primarily targeted the poor. The reality in difficult and violent places including our own country is so astounding that it is beyond absurd. Inhabiting the language of dreams has presented an opportunity for me to converse with our notions of beauty and brutality through ways that aren’t narrative in structure.
Perhaps this is an extension of the previous question. One of my favorite poems in this collection is “The Suitcase,” which moves with such striking narrative and imagery and breaks open so marvelously at the end. What are the roots of this particular poem? Is Marquez, who you cite in the epigraph, “after Gabriel García Márquez,” a larger influence on your work, and this collection in particular?
Thanks for framing your question in a such a kind and generous way. “The Suitcase” is a poem I’ve been trying to write for years. Years ago, I came across a short story by Gabriel García Márquez called “The Saint” about an Andean man who travels to Rome with a slender pine coffin the size of a large violin case. He was carrying his dead daughter who died when she was a small child. Her perfectly intact body was unearthed when a dam was being constructed. Like many of Márquez’s stories, the fantastical nature of his work mixed with elements of pagan Catholicism has inspired my own writing since I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude. There is a formal element in structuring “The Suitcase,” which was challenging for me, but I loved working on it bit by bit over the years. Reimagining Márquez’s “The Saint” is also a way to allow his work to live on, I hope.
“Sightseer in This Killing City” is a collection full of violence, including weapons ranging from the guns in the hands of America and politicians in the opening poems; the knife in the hand of “Nurse Nacirema”; the baseball bat of “A Psalm for Beauty and Violence”; as well as hands used as weapons in several poems. And then come the final lines of the book:
“and in front of the mall
Was a giant sign: KARATE, GUNS & TANNING–
another banner year for guns and gardens,
our arsenal democracy, our ruin porn.
Ending there, with “ruined porn” offers a pointed political, and possibly aesthetic, punch. Can you talk a little about the challenge of making art out of the violence and disruption of this world, the “arsenal democracy”?
You can say that what drives the book is the challenge of writing about violence and finding a lyric quality to the language. There is also a communal sense of grief we all feel; a deep, deep sigh we let out in our sense of helplessness. To address the subject of gun violence so directly and explicitly seems more a work of nonfiction than of poetry. In my poems I try to find the language to speak tacitly about a subject, always considering the elements of poetic craft. I began this poem while at a residency in a small coastal town in the Pacific Northwest. The origins of this book project however began in west central Indiana town where there is a strip mall marked by a sign that reads KARATE, GUNS & TANNING, which welcomes me on my drive home to Greencastle from the Indianapolis airport. And for the record, there is a magazine called “Guns and Gardens”!
These poems are frequently in dialogue with musicians, whether through allusion or deeper conversations, such as in “Liner Notes for Monk” and “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” which has the epigraph “a mistranslation of Jacques Brel’s song,” and which, of course, is more of a response than a translation. What role has music played in your writing life in terms of both influence and process?
We live with two rabbits and when we’re not home we leave the radio on to keep them company. They’re not big fans of loud rock music, but they don’t mind some classical jazz like Miles Davis or John Coltrane. But I think they’re real squares in their musical taste because they can go all day listening to the same classical music. They love Bach’s cello suites and his Goldberg Variations; but their favorite jam is Pachelbel canon in D. In many ways, I share my rabbits’ taste for classical music and jazz and when I’m at artist colonies, I always draw inspiration from composers and other artists who turn me on to new music. During my early years as a student in poetry writing workshops, whenever a poem was not working well, invariably someone would ask, “where’s the music in this?” “Ne Me Quitte Pas,” is, as you accurately point out, more of a response than a mistranslation. One of the things I was attempting to do in this particular collection was to resist the narrative impulse. So with songs sung in a different language, or instrumental pieces by masters such as Coltrane and Davis, I gave myself the task to locate a “lyric” response to the original piece. But perhaps in a more screwball fashion, I was attempting to draw my readers’ attention to particular songs by artists such as Fela Kuti, Stevie Wonder, and Al Green as a way to lend a separate tone to the collection in the same manner that filmmakers use soundtracks in their films.
You are in conversation with many poets throughout the collection. If you were to draw yourself a poetic family tree, who are some of the poets who would belong there? Who has been important to you since your early work as a poet, and who do you find influential or find connections to at this chapter of your writing life, as you send your fourth collection into the world?
I came to poetic consciousness in graduate school even though I’ve been drawn to poetry since I was a child. I wrote poems when I was young and many, many bad poems before joining my first poetry writing workshop. When I started reading contemporary poetry on my own I was initially drawn to James Tate and Paul Éluard. Later as a student, I was introduced to the works of Philip Levine, Gerald Stern, and my own teachers: Garrett Hongo, Li-Young Lee, David Mura, Corrine Hales, Leslie Adrienne Miller, and Robert Wrigley. If you were to draw a family tree to these powerful teachers, you would discover their extended branches connect to the American giants Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. But where I am now with Sightseer in This Killing City, I’m finding my way back to my early affections, rediscovering poets such as James Tate and reassessing the surrealist tendencies in the poets I continue to love like Yusef Komunyakaa and Larry Levis.
I would like to thank Memorious again for publishing my poems “Nurse Nacirema” and “Failure” back in 2013 and for the journal’s kind interest in my newest book of poetry.
Interviewer Rebecca Morgan Frank is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of Memorious: a journal of new verse & fiction.