José Angel Araguz is a CantoMundo Fellow and the author of six chapbooks as well as the collection Everything We Think We Hear (Floricanto Press). His poems, prose, and reviews have appeared in RHINO Poetry, New South, and The Volta Blog. A PhD candidate in creative writing and literature at the University of Cincinnati, José runs the poetry blog, The Friday Influence. His second poetry collection, Small Fires, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press in 2017. His poem “Hails from Corpus Christi” will be published in the Fall 2016 Carve Premium Edition. Preorder or subscribe by Sunday, October 23, for special savings and discounts.
Every aspect of craft in "Hails from Corpus Christi" — the figurative language, punctuation, line breaks, sound — contributes to the inextricable connection between the events described. Please tell us about the experience of paralleling these scenes.
When I began working on the batch of poems that eventually became my second full-length collection, Small Fires (forthcoming from FutureCycle Press in 2017), I found myself revising some of the poems with an eye and ear toward a loose, yet consistent, measure. In “Hails from Corpus Christi,” there is an aural “spine” of sorts that is made up of four-beat lines, with variations here and there with three-beat and five-beat lines. My hope is that this push and pull establishes a cadence among disparate scenes, holding them together within the same soundscape. This structural engine is also what helped guide line breaks and also had an influence on word choice. For me, the awkward phrasing, including the rolling fragments and dashes, reflects the moments of shame, violence, and anger depicted in the poem, while the figurative language adds the human element of voice. In general, we speak of an overwhelming emotion primarily in terms of figurative language: when overwhelmed we feel clouded; someone can appear like a storm when angry. In poetry, we’re told to shy away from such terms, but in this particular poem I wanted to stick close to how things are said. I recently heard Carmen Tafolla refer to voice as an essential chemical in a poem, one that causes reactions, creates heat. The truth of her statement hit home with me, and I can look back at “Hails” and see some of that idea reflected here.
What were the challenges in writing this poem and how did you overcome them?
There’s a line from Danielle Cadena Deulen’s The Riots that I started carrying with me in my notebooks around the time of writing the early drafts of this poem: “What is the point of revealing your feelings without revealing who you are?” That line echoed in my head as I drafted “Hails” and is a kind of talisman I carry with me even now to keep me honest on the page. Which is to say, the main challenge in writing this poem was pushing myself to the kind of honesty and clarity the poem seemed to be asking of me. For “Hails,” that meant not just narrating scenes of violence, but evoking them at the level of language. Along with the work done in the craft of the poem, there was some conceptual work that helped the poem be realized. Pushing on the double meaning of the word “hails,” so that it is both declaration and pellets of frozen rain, was the start of digging into other similarly charged words.
The title references a specific city: Corpus Christi, Texas. How important is place in your work?
Place is everything, and place is everywhere. When I say place is everything, I mean you have to present the good with the bad. If it is an element of the crucible that made you, then it is an element of you, however large or small. When I say place is everywhere, I mean that you can move on, you don’t have to stay; yet there are things that stay with you. As I mentioned, this poem is a kind of trail marker for the collection: all the themes are present. Growing up witness to abusive relationships and also being hit as a child left its mark on me, left me afraid of what it might mean for me down the line. What is the right way to express anger? What are healthy ways to express it? These are questions whose answers keep changing, and which I carry with me from those experiences as a child. I have lived in several cities, but no matter where I am, certain overwhelming emotions put me back into being the scared kid hiding in a corner in South Texas.
When and how did you discover poetry and what has it come to mean to you?
One of my earliest poetry memories goes back to second grade. The teacher, bless them, taught us the five-seven-five form of haiku, and I remember spending months writing haiku about Ninja Turtles, aliens, vampires, etc. I go back to this moment because much of what I did then — sit alone, counting syllables to myself, working out phrases while rocking a bit back and forth — I still do now. I have learned to talk about it in terms of syllabics and measures, but really I’m that kid, engrossed, lost in words for hours. I describe this kid because the image is of someone who isn’t trying to discover anything, but who is caught up in poetry despite himself. For me, that’s what it means to me. Everything I write begins in poetry and strives toward that level of engrossment, that sense of being present while at the same time elsewhere.