Texas 806, Anarchism, and Poetry: An interview with mónica teresa ortiz

By: Juania Sueños

We sat down for a charla with mónica teresa ortiz, the author of An Autobiography of a Semi Romantic Anarchist. While the panhandle wind blew violently in mónica’s background, we managed to discuss a myriad of topics, from how poetry fits into anarchism, to process and principles.

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Take me through your poet’s birth, or your introduction to poetry, not in its literal written sense, but the experiential life moments that jolt young poets into a state of perpetual observance, the moments that we carry with us into adulthood. 

I think growing up in rural Texas, witness to land, to wind, to horizons that could be Rothko paintings, influenced my understanding of poetics. Out here, in the Panhandle, there is a lot of quiet, a lot of silence, and wide-open spaces. There is much to be understood and learned in solitude, in sparse landscapes. Rilke spoke about the magnificence of the sublime, and moving space between the trees, out here there aren’t that many trees but there is a lot of space, and I think that makes it sublime. During my childhood, spending so much time outside, often with my abuelito, on the farm where he worked, I came to see how he created so much with his hands. There was language in his slow steady movements, and I learned how to listen to what he wasn’t saying, rather than what he was. For me, the land was my beginning experiences of poetry, an architect of complex relationships and connections.

You mentioned being back home and observing the way of life there, and realizing how people are basically in survival mode. Where does art fit into this kind of existence? Or does that make poetry seem superfluous to you? How do you justify the time you dedicate to writing?

You know, it’s interesting. I grew up here, and this place can be cyclical and sometimes bleak. A lot of people, my parents, their friends, they don’t really leave this area. I mean, maybe they move to Lubbock, or Amarillo, or a different town, but they don’t really leave the 806 (the panhandle’s area code) and one way to escape for me was to read a lot, visit the library, and you know, I’m talking about people here surviving, many rely on agriculture, the cow industry, there’s a lot of feedlots and slaughterhouses, meatpacking places, there’s a lot of industry that’s come into this area in the past years. These are the things people do to make their income. I wanted to get out, and for me reading and writing, that helped me leave, they’re the reason that I got to go to U.T. Austin. It’s interesting to me how my survival depended on my ability to read and write so I could leave and learn about myself. Returning here now, being reminded that even if art is important to me, it’s not paying people’s bills here. I’ve spent the last twenty years of my life working off and on as a poet, I’ve never actually lived off of that.

Does this return change your perspective of writing in relationship to labor? Do you perceive it as work? Do you accept the capitalistic, and institution-based aspects of writing?

Capitalism is a difficult system to evade because it is so insidious and entrenched in so many aspects of life. Unfortunately, U.S. poetry is an industry, and not impervious to the flaws of such a system. I still believe in the collective possibility of what language can do, but I don’t think an industry that awards money and prestige to some, is going to threaten any institutions, much less bring them down. I definitely feel a lot more cynical about poetry than I did at 20. When I was much younger, getting my MFA I thought that I would be on a road that would lead me into academia or an institution and maybe end up teaching, you know, but through a series of interventions—I suppose that’s the best word for it—I realized I didn’t want to teach, but I wanted to write poetry though I didn’t necessarily want to view it as a career. I’m not sure I can explain this fully, but I didn’t want to mix my love with my labor. When I moved back to Austin in 2009, I decided I would work separately on my poetry and I would just get a job to pay bills, and I wound up getting into specialty coffee. I worked in coffee for the past ten years and just wrote when I had the energy.

As a person of the “Nintendo Generation” who has, like many of our contemporaries, lived through perpetual war, intense isolation, internet-spread real-time violence captured via cell phones, and presently a pandemic, how do you energize yourself to continue writing? Do you believe that poetry has a power for change?

I don’t energize or force myself to write. I write when I feel like it. I am slow and sometimes scribble a line or two somewhere. I’m not interested in being prolific or productive. I am more motivated by ideas, conversations, building. Alexis Pauline Gumbs has a line in Dub that talks about how colonizers do not eat with gratitude. But the opposite of that is the idea that it is possible to eat with gratitude. That we do not have to consume or extract. However, that requires practice, possibility, opportunity, intention. I ultimately believe that people have the power to change, to organize, to move. If we want abolition, it will be us that works towards that future. Poetry is simply a vessel, sometimes a platform, or expression, that can amplify or describe, through language and image. But it’s the poet who can decide where the vessel goes, or how it’s used.

What do you think your position in the world is now?

I think it’s somewhere between being disruptive—I definitely love to disrupt space—so coming from that background when I’m in a space I think, what can I do to alter this space in a better way, and I think being queer really contributes to that. In high school, I was already thought of as an outsider, and once I came out it sort of affirmed what that status meant, I can exist on the outside. I think it makes you aware of space and view space very differently. So if I can, I’m going to disrupt something, whether it’s through a conversation or practice, through my work, or words, I think that’s one way that I think of my role. And to be in solidarity with people and to support people I find myself in solidarity with.

Labels and their relationship to self-perception is a major factor that galvanized Infrarrealista Review, do you feel you can gain any use from labels? There is a poem in your collection An Autobiography of a Semi Romantic Anarchist, “I tried to be a Zapatista,” in which identity is being reckoned with in a country in which the speaker concludes that to “choose death over submission” is the way to be. And the poem concludes, “I needed to discover/for myself/who am I/ in this conquered land.” Are there any other labels you use now that you didn’t before?

I came out when I was twenty or twenty-one, 2002, and some of these labels I didn’t have access to, or didn’t know about. I just knew I didn’t desire them. I never liked the word lesbian. I didn’t like the sound of it, phonetically. I didn’t like it being assigned to me. I don’t have very many pet peeves but that’s one—when people assign an identity to another person. Queer was not a nice word growing up I heard it as a pejorative. When it came back and was co-opted I really appreciated it not for having to do with my preferences, but as a politic. I really appreciated it because I think queerness is a kind of politic, it’s a kind of practice, you know, it might describe a preference you have but more than that, it’s about how you live your life in terms of relating to community and being outside of these systems as well. 

What does the label “anarchist” mean to you?

To me, principles are very important, principles are practice. I believe they’re incredibly important foundations for me, so for me, the title, A Semi Romantic Anarchist is a line from a poem by Charles Simic, calledThe Devils,” and he took the line from the philosopher, Herbert Marcuse, that’s kind of where it came from. I read Simic when I was in grad school and I just really loved that line and that idea of a semi romantic anarchist and I always kept it in the back of my mind. I see it as someone who is trying to exist and trying to live in opposition, to capitalism, to the state, to nations, so that’s how I thought about it. Even though it’s much harder in practice because of how everything is set up and entangled, but for me, I had many friends who were hardcore anarchists, and they were anarchists of color, they weren’t white anarchist—I think that’s a very important distinction. They were anarchists from Latin America, and they introduced me to the things they were reading, theory, practices, and when that became more accessible, later, I really appreciated all the work of Black anarchists and Indigenous anarchists and the availability of these texts, because they’ve influenced me and the ways that I think about liberation and try to live my life in alignment with these kinds of praxis. Anarchism is not what people think. In the white imagination, there tends to be this general idea that anarchy is chaos and that’s not it at all. It’s definitely more about a practice of collective thinking, it’s about community and the elimination of hierarchy and power—obviously, where we are not under the state. There are no nations, no states, we’re a collective conscious, engaged in collective struggle, that’s what I think anarchism is.

In, An Autobiography of a Semi Romantic Anarchist, your poems all follow the same form. Did you have a visualization of the poems on the page before you wrote them?

I am a really big fan of Eduardo Galeano, and appreciate the style he used in most of his work: the crônica, which is just a brief write up of daily life or activity. When I wrote that book, I worked on it in such a short amount of time that it really came out that way, in short bursts. They never felt like they should fall down the page like what we think of usually in poems. There needed to be space and thought, room to think.

In different Infrarrealista manifestos, one of the main complaints against the establishment is that there is no separation between life and art, and yet writing is taught and approached as if that were the case. Santiago Papasquiaroone of the OG Infrarealism pioneers, demanded for writers to directly engage in the social crisis of a capitalistic Mexico, they had to resist the repression coming from all systems of that era. In many of your poems, political events take place not alongside your art and life but within your art and life. For example, in the poem, “Executions have always been public spectacles,” on New Year’s Eve, you see footage of a man’s death by falling on a train platform while he’s handcuffed, and then the poem goes back to the feeling of heartbreak.

To be honest, being back in the place where I grew up, where I was raised, watching people struggle, hearing about death and loss so often, and of course, witnessing the government’s response to a global pandemic, to crisis, I can’t separate art from life. Art comes from life. From knowledge, from experience, from thought. It’s not possible (for me) to ignore what is happening in society, to us, to people. I was born the year Reagan became president. My life is bound up with political events and my generation has witnessed so much violence, the gross reaches of capitalism into nearly every sector, the extraction of land, water, and labor. People in the US are shocked by mass shootings but look at our government, our police, our military. They murder people, here in the US and also abroad. So I really can’t imagine just writing the same sort of poems with the same topics as Louise Gluck (or many other poets, particularly white ones). Why would I want to? 

I worked in the service industry for more than ten years, and more often than not, I didn’t have the energy after a shift to write anything. Or was too stressed about paying my bills to worry about form. Life has always affected my art, and my access to it. And yet, I am against its establishment. Poetry has helped me cope with trauma, with violence, with a system that doesn’t want Black, Indigenous, or people of color to survive. I forget where it’s at, but I always say, you are more likely to hear me talking about politics than poetry. That’s just who I am.

I was reading some of Maria Larosa’s (an OG Infrarrealista) workwho died completely unpublished, aside from brief citations in scholarly articles, so what I was really reading was actually letters she sent to Santiago Papasquiaro and Roberto Bolaño and I was absolutely blown away by her style, very experimental in form, not quite prose poetry, and just incredible language, it reminded me more of a visual piece, and it really made me think about how many dead feminists have written amazing works that are now gone with them and never got to reach other people like them. IR would like to focus on revival of works in the future because it’s truly serendipitous to come across these texts when they barely even exist in the public sphere. Are there any writings/writers that you stumbled across in this way that changed you or that you are grateful for the circumstantial encountering them?

I prefer “seeking” rather than “stumbling.” Because I am particular and intentional about what I read. I look for writers outside of poetry and outside of the US (and the English language).

They have changed my thinking and perspective, and reading anti-colonial thinkers and poets shifted me toward practice. I am so grateful to Caribbean thought, from Glissant to the Cesaires, to Dionne Brand, to Claude Mckay, and to poetry in Arabic and Japanese. A lot of muted blood was inspired by reading the Japanese form of tankas. I aspire to write a book of love poems, because of Nizar Qabbani. Also, two books that completely altered my own work were Christina Sharpe’s In the Wake: On Blackness & Being, and Ashraf Fayad’s Instructions Within. 

You allude to many popular figures, from Japlin, to Mac Miller, Dylan, theorists, philosophers, etc. How do these things make it into your poetry? Does it happen like in Leon Stokesbury’s “Evening’s End” in which Japlin’s voice singing “Summertime” on the radio, invokes memories from years ago and soon unravels this thread about a fascinating womana recovering heroin addict, studying history, and to his surprise a talented musicianwhom his friend used to date?

I think that poetry is a study of incidents, small daily moments that interact with bigger life altering ones. To me, these people in my poems are representatives of ideas, of correlations to ongoing events that occur at certain moments in our collective consciousness. For example, when I think about the early days of the pandemic, I think about what I was reading and listening to. That was Thelonius Monk’s Straight, No Chaser album and Tiffany Lethabo King’s The Black Shoals. These days, I have been reading Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge and listening to Mariah Carey, so it’s a little different. But, they are all linked, bound by that moment and memory.

 

Juania Sueños

mónica teresa ortiz connects landscapes and burials not to hold onto the past, but so that through memory and haunting, poetics travel beyond our individual experience of them to discover instead, a collective one. They explore the relationships between necropolitics, geopolitics, and history. Born and raised in Texas, ortiz is the author of muted blood & autobiography of a semiromantic anarchist. They have work forthcoming in the Indiana Review, are working on a second poetry collection, a few short film projects, and workshops centered around land, water, & climate change.
 

Featured image by: J.S.

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