PUEBLA

Mariam Ahmed talks with Brent Ameneyro about his poetry chapbook, Puebla, out now from Ghost City Press.


 

Mariam Ahmed: Your chapbook covers a wide range of historical and personal events. How did you decide on the themes and events to include in your poetry?

Brent Ameneyro: Although I am only now “emerging” as a published poet, I have been writing my whole life. As a child, I made my own little books and stapled them together, read them in front of the VHS camcorder, and placed them on the bookshelf next to The Cat in the Hat. As a teenager, I wrote song lyrics and played drums in a couple rock bands. During my time as an undergrad, I fell in love with William Blake and the Romantic poets (as one does). And for my post-grad years, I worked a mundane day job and wrote experimental poetry inspired by my love for philosophy and metaphysics. When I started applying to grad school, I had a vision: I was going to write about the years I spent living in Mexico as a child and turn it into my first book. At first, the poems coming out of me were about my biracial and binational identity. They were about my personal experiences, as if I had to begin by entering memory and simply documenting what I encountered. But, as most writers quickly discover when pursuing such a task, memory is unreliable and ever changing, and the personal almost inevitably becomes political.

MA: “The Search” vividly captures a mix of emotions and scenes. Can you share the inspiration behind this poem and your approach to conveying the experiences described?

BA: Puebla has two volcanoes nearby: the active volcano Popocatépetl and the dormant volcano Iztaccíhuatl. When my family lived in Puebla in the 90s, Popo awoke from a half century slumber and rained down ash over the city. There’s a Nahua romance myth of the princess Iztaccíhuatl and the warrior Popocatépetl, which you’ll see referenced in the poem I wrote. Mythology and nature imagery are juxtaposed with aspects of the modern world, particularly police corruption. When I returned to Puebla as an adult, seeing the volcanoes and the police made me feel that sense of fear I had as a child, like the sky was falling.

MA: “Mom Is from Wisconsin Dad Is from Mexico and I Sing” after Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’ “Dakota” which is based on a close reading of Ezra Pound’s Cantos I and first part of II, and In “Ulysses in Puebla,” you draw inspiration from James Joyce’s Ulysses. Can you elaborate on your creative process when it comes to integrating literary references into your work?

BA: When I first watched “DAKOTA,” I fell in love with the way Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries makes literature feel new and exciting, not just in their language, but in their form. When I studied under Jessica Pressman, I read her piece The Strategy of Digital Modernism: Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries’s Dakota, which opened my eyes to a whole new perspective. The first line in Pound’s “Canto I” is “And then went down to the ship,” Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries begins “DAKOTA” with the line “Fucking waltzed out to the car,” and so, as an homage to Young Hae Chang Heavy Industries, I start my poem with “crammed into the minivan.” If you toggle between these three poems line by line, you’ll see this process of retelling/retranslating continues, so it’s as if I’m placing my family story in this literary vessel. And because Pound’s Canto I is an adaptation of book 11 of Homer’s Odyssey, this process of retranslating takes the personal details of my story and makes them part of an ongoing literary lineage.

When writing “Ulysses in Puebla,” in terms of craft, I wanted to write a poem inspired by the syntax and shifting voice in Joyce’s novel. But I was also inspired thematically; the way Joyce involves Dublin in his writing felt similar to the way I was writing about Puebla. And because I was already writing in response to Homer’s Odyssey in other poems, I was also inspired by the aforementioned literary lineage apparent in Joyce’s work. I’d like to borrow Stephanie Nelson’s assertion about the relationship between Homer’s Odyssey and Joyce’s Ulysses: “Thematically, the same problem lies at the heart of both works: you can never go home again, because the “you” that returns is no longer the “you” that left.”

 

MA: “Rules of the Game” touches on the issue of migrant children at the southern border. How does your poetry engage with social and political issues, and what impact do you hope your words have on readers?

BA: I had this professor/mentor during my undergrad who would start every class by saying, “we are at war, don’t forget that.” This was during the “war on terror” in the 2000s. At the time, I thought he was just making us aware so we didn’t get lost in academia’s fantasy that we can read books and live in peace while the rest of the world burns. In hindsight, and now through the lens of the current genocide in Palestine, I realize he was, as a writer, also making us aware of the way language is used as a tool in political warfare. At the time, the U.S. didn’t declare war on Iraq, they declared war on “terror.” In fact, the U.S. technically has only declared war 11 times in its history, the most recent being in 1942. The U.S. has been trying to find creative ways to run the war machine without causing mass protests and uproar. Because there was mass opposition to the “war of terror,” now we are watching the U.S. send billions of dollars to Israel in an effort to bypass culpability. The U.S. is no longer declaring war, it is “providing aid to allies.”

I digress. I don’t believe writers become politically charged through peer influence or academic indoctrination, at least that wasn’t the case for me. I think writers tend to be inherently sensitive, acutely aware, and can’t help but point out when language is weaponized. When it comes to writing poetry, for me, social and political issues appear organically as a kind of consequence when writing toward beauty. As Keats famously said in “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.”

 

MA: The “Choose Your Own Adventure” poem introduces a unique structure. What led you to experiment with this format, and how does it contribute to the overall narrative of the chapbook?

BA: I want to say something about Latin American magical realism, about Borges, about García Márquez. In truth, I loved reading R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps books as a kid. My favorites were the “choose your own adventure” style, where I could read and reread the book and end up in a different place each time. I felt as though I was part of the storytelling process when reading these books, like I was both reader and contributor. I wanted to incorporate this playfulness into my work. And because the poems in my chapbook are so personal, I wanted readers to feel involved in the emotional experience of the speaker. In the same way that I felt scared landing in the jaws of an alligator at an amusement park when reading Goosebumps, I wanted readers of my chapbook to feel connected to the feelings explored in my poetry. In an effort to further extend this invitation to readers, I also wrote this poem in second person.

 

MA: Your acknowledgments mention the recognition of your chapbook in various contests. How does external recognition influence your creative process, and what advice do you have for aspiring poets entering competitions?

BA: Unlike other artforms, literary art is undoubtedly linked to academia. I’m not an academic; I’m an artist. Although I’ve studied and obtained three college degrees, I don’t have the ability to rattle off names or casually incorporate theory into conversation. My mind leans toward daydreaming more than analyzing and memorizing. For this reason, I’ve always felt like an outsider in literary circles. I don’t need external recognition to write or create, but it definitely helps inspire me to keep publishing.

As far as advice goes, I’m going to quote someone much smarter and more experienced than me. During a Q&A session at the Afro-Latinx Poetry Now gathering at the University of Notre Dame on September 27th, 2022, poet John Murillo said, “I’d say to young poets starting out not to think about publishing and opportunities. Think about studying and reading and loving the art. Play the long game. No rush to publish. Publishing is not an accomplishment…Publish just means make public. Play the long game.”

 

MA: Finally, looking ahead, what themes or topics are you eager to explore in your future poetry projects?

BA: My debut full length poetry collection A Face Out of Clay is coming out June 2024 with The Center for Literary Publishing as part of their Mountain/West Poetry Series. The poems in this book continue the exploration of identity beyond my childhood in Puebla. I write about experiences as an adult, but I also push toward humanity’s relationship to the earth and the divine.

I’m also working on my second full length collection which contains a lot of love poems, poems about death, and poems about the destruction of our planet and humanity’s looming demise. The manuscript contains plenty of sonnets, some experimental forms, and lots of flowers.

 


With future projects on the horizon, readers can anticipate further explorations of identity, love, mortality, and the intricate dance between humanity and the world. Readers can find Brent Ameneyro’s Puebla here.