Border Talk: An Interview With Copper Canyon Poet Benjamin Alire Sáenz

Benjaminaliresaenz_2 A note from interviewer Farid Matuk: 

Former roofer, onion picker, janitor, theologian and Catholic priest, Benjamin Alire Sáenz [pictured] is now a prize winning essayist, novelist, poet, and activist passionately in love with El Paso and its people. I was drawn to his most recent collection of poems, "Elegies in Blue" (Cinco Puntos Press), because it is fundamentally a work about creating communities across boundaries of race, class, region, sexuality, and even history itself–a daring proposition at a time when our sense of a national community is being created at the expense of a hated “other”– an evil doer, a foreigner, a Muslim. For the past several months Sáenz and I have maintained a conversation about poetry and the varied communities in his hometown of El Paso. What follows are excerpts from that correspondence.

Farid Matuk: In your essay, “Notes from The City In Which I Live,” you write, “I am a writer. Somehow, by some great miracle, I have become a possessor of the word. I have learned, that through words, you can gain a small piece of the world.” Did education give you the word, did your family push you to search for it, or did the word find you?

Benjamin Alire Sáenz: I was born in 1954. My parents were not educated and our circumstances were humble, to say the least. Not one house I ever entered while I was growing up had libraries or books. Everyone worked hard, lived from paycheck to paycheck, had too many kids, too many debts, drove cars that were always breaking down. Needless to say, I do not have the same background as a W.H. Auden or a T.S. Eliot. This is not to say that I was not surrounded by civil and intelligent people. The community that taught me language–English and Spanish and Border Talk–that community gave me the word. It pains me to say this but the educational system in this country does not give people “the word.” We cannot use words if we do not know how to think–and that is the one thing that a standardized test cannot measure. And while education can and does open doors, it cannot give you a center from which to critique the dominant discourses and cultures around you.

FM: Where do you ground your work–who do you imagine as your audience or audiences?

BAS: My work is grounded in the material world in which I live. I examine that world through literary genres–poetry, for instance. But I have as much allegiance to my subject matter as I do to a literary genre. I live in El Paso–and the desert and the border and its people are what I care about. I am sick to death of parachute journalists and sensationalists, and even other Chicanos who use the border as a subject to further their careers. The border is primarily a place and not a metaphor. It takes a long time to learn the complexities, the subtleties, and nuances of our lives and our situations.

It takes a long time to speak and know our language. But writers come in for the “Big Story.” Something terrible happens and they come. They ask questions, they take notes, they write something, they leave. And mostly their stories are shallow and not worth the paper they’re written on. I no longer speak to people who wish to come and speak to native informants so they can sell a cheap magazine article featuring the poor or so they can sell a glossy book to New York editors filled with drug lords and murders.

FM: Maybe because I’m an immigrant or because I grew up next to Disneyland or because I read too much post-modern theory in college, but it’s difficult for me to experience any place as “primarily a place and not a metaphor.” The idea that El Paso is the last “real” city in the United States, a comment rumored to have been made by the novelist Cormac McCarthy, kept ringing in my head while I visited your city. This is a particularly interesting time to be questioning ideas of real and metaphoric places since the Bush administration seems to have successfully traded a wholly metaphoric vision of the globe, a globe of good and evil, for our understanding of geography.

BAS: I don’t know whether Mr. McCarthy said that or not–although I’ve heard that particular quote attributed to him many times. I think it’s a rather backhanded compliment. It’s a romanticization of a space that is completely inappropriate. The border is a hard place to live. There is a great deal of poverty in El Paso/Juarez and I can’t imagine softening the great difficulties people have to endure just to survive day in and day out. I love El Paso–but I refuse to turn it into a nostalgic, romantic space inhabited by unsophisticated (if tough and interesting) denizens. And, anyway, every city is real. Labeling something “real” is a shorthand that tells me very little.

I do love this city. I love it because I understand it. I love it because it’s my city, and because I belong here. I realize that living in a space as difficult and poor and complicated as El Paso makes people want to run toward their nearest metaphor, but we must resist the temptation. If we are merely a metaphor then our problems are not real (there’s that word again). We cannot turn cities or peoples or entire cultures into stereotypes and metaphors–we cannot place them all into the category of “evil.” The people of the Middle East are real. They are not monsters. If there are reactionary radicals in that space (and I’m not pretending there aren’t), then isn’t it incumbent on me, even if only out of pure self-interest, to find out what brings hatred to life. … The President has appointed himself our national theologian. That is a dangerous path. A part of me wants to say that there is nothing “real” about Mr. Bush’s theology–but, alas, it is all too real.

FM: A recent Harper’s Magazine article asked why some people care more about politics than others, which is a way of asking how some find points of identification with complete strangers engaged in distant battles for survival or for greed, while others keep their thoughts from lingering on people whose names they do not know and could not pronounce. Why do you think you engage with the world beyond your door or your neighborhood or your city?

BAS: It’s safe to say that I was born on the margins of American culture. My gender, my social position, my ethnicity, all of these helped shape my political responses to the world. I am, at heart, a religious (if unorthodox) Catholic. If I learned anything in my years when I studied theology, I learned that it is not enough to desire heaven for oneself–that is a myopic solipsism that is antithetical to the very idea of a generous God.

The second thing I have come to understand is that there must be a correlation between heaven and earth–which is to say that the very idea of a just world is an integral part of being a believer–which brings us, of course, to politics. Here, I have to insert that I believe firmly in the wisdom of the separation between Church and State. The problem I have with most Christians is that their theology is too small, too unworthy of God, who is much larger than our small imaginations. Most believers don’t know how to be adults in their faiths–they become children abandoning their minds in favor of childish ideas. The reason I cannot bear Biblical fundamentalists is not because I have a prejudice against “Christians” but because fundamentalists fall back into the useless and unhelpful categories of good and evil–useless and unhelpful categories because they mask more than they illuminate. I think people want to run away from the very complicated world we live in because it’s just too damn hard.

FM: The poem, “Work: for the workers in the Juarez maquilas,” states: “I feel myself disintegrating, becoming nothing but/ Pure rage. But rage is cheap… You think I want/ To hate? You think I want to be mud? I only want/ To breathe. I want to breathe.” How does this rage inform your life now, your work?

BAS: Rage must be a component of any writer’s life. How can you live in the world and not be enraged? What is the appropriate response to the violence and cruelty of so much of what happens in the world? The question is not whether we should be enraged–surely, we ought to be. The real question I’d put to some people is: “Why aren’t you mad as hell? What are you, dead?” But this rage, that we must necessarily live with, it must also be contained–otherwise our very bodies will become chaos–our minds will become chaos. We need order. That is where writing comes in. It is the container where we place our rage and distill it, and it is transformed, if we are decent enough writers, transformed into something much more beautiful and gracious and forgiving than our rage.

FM: What is your sense of the limits to the scope and influence of poetry in this country?

BAS: Poetry has a very limited sphere of influence in this country. I would say, generally speaking, that the biggest influence in American society today is the “movie.” Movies are today’s novels. It has become very difficult for a writer’s voice to intervene in American culture in a very substantial way. A writer can claim less and less power. What, after all, have I changed through my writing? Perhaps, I shouldn’t say that no transformations have occurred. But those transformations are small. Well, I’m happy to take what I can. God, help me, I’m addicted to this thing called writing.

FM: A conversation I keep alive with fellow poets is one about consolation and redemption. Can or should poems console their readers, redeem the world in which these readers live or should poems critique this world vigorously and consistently? Can the work of any one poet be so singular as to proceed along only one of these tracks? I am reacting here against what I consider to be a popular trend in U.S. poetry toward speaking only of the private stations of private lives–birth, love, divorce, death–in order to redeem their attendant sorrows, as if all human crisis were personal or psychological in origin. How does redemption figure in your own work?

BAS: Here you ask a difficult question. Poems can console. And while I do not believe that poems can redeem, they can remind us that redemption is possible. Because I believe the work I have set out for myself is to be a political poet–not a crazy man who rants on the street–but a political poet, I think I have set out for myself a conversation with the world I live in. I am not interested in writing merely personal poems–though there is much of the elements of the “personal” in my work. I am not an exhibitionist. I do not believe that my life is supremely interesting. I believe that it is my task, as a poet, to examine the world I live in and reflect upon it. I don’t write poems to redeem the attendant joys and sorrows of my life–that is a forum for my wife, and my family and my friends.

I am a Catholic. I am a believer. I could not exist in the world, if I did not believe in redemption. I think, and I could be mistaken, that redemption is written all over my work. Despair is a moment of grief in my lexicon, but it can never be a way of life–it can never be the attitude that wins the day.

If I look specifically, at this book of poems, Elegies in Blue, I would say that redemption can be found in grief. I would say, that if a human does not learn how to lose and how to grieve, then redemption is not possible–or perhaps not necessary. I end my book with these lines: “Perhaps, this year, a harvest for the poor./ At last. This year. A harvest for the poor.”

FM: My memory of popular culture in the late ’70s and early ’80s is that a wider conversation was possible–I remember more than one sitcom representing the lives of the working class; there seemed to have been more programs made for adults. Am I suffering nostalgia or has America really been made dumber?

BAS: Well, popular culture is a bit schizophrenic. Some of it has always been very smart. And a good deal more of it has always been incredibly stupid. A good deal of the rebellious culture of the late sixties and early seventies simply masked (and mercifully gave direction to) middle-class ennui. Brown kids and black kids had a great deal more at stake than white kids. After the Vietnam War, middle-class kids went back to being–well, middle-class kids. For the rest of us, there was still a war going on (only we didn’t know enough to call it that).

The Reagan eighties were awful, disgusting, distasteful, and anything but civilized. He was one of the meanest presidents we have ever had. He was uncompromising, a right-wing ideologue, and dismissive of anyone who disagreed with him, his administration or his policies. Tell me why, in a democracy, such a man is turned into a saint? We are supposed to value dissent, no? During the Reagan years, Central Americans died by the thousands because of our foreign policy and our influence. The “contras” were terrorists. And we sponsored them.

The one great thing about getting older is that we do carry history in our bodies. I, for one, haven’t the stomach for nostalgia. Nostalgia makes for bad politics.

I rather flippantly like to remark that America, in times of trouble, likes to toy with fascism. With the likes of Mr. Bush and Mr. Ashcroft at the helm, my little remark doesn’t feel so flippant on my tongue. And Farid, my friend, the world has never conspired to create intelligent human beings. The world wears us down, numbs us down, dumbs us down. We, must, I’m afraid, gain our intelligence at a cost.

Farid Matuk is a poet and freelance writer living in Austin.