C.T. Salazar (@CTsalazar_) is a Latinx poet and librarian from Mississippi. He is the author of This Might Have Meant Fire (Bull City Press). His poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Review, The Cincinnati Review, RHINO, 32 Poems, Tinderbox, Foundry, Tampa Review, and elsewhere.
C.T. and RHR editor, Judith Lagana first met on Twitter in July 2018 when C.T. took to tweeting one Mary Oliver poem a day throughout the month of July. Taken by his dedication to the poetic form, his obvious talent as a poet in his own right, and his consistency in promoting the work of other contemporary poets, C.T. was a natural choice for an RHR conversation.
RHR: What in your life prepared you to be a poet?
C.T. Salazar: Mississippi. Growing up here led me to poetry. I love this absurd state, and I’m forever wanting it to be better.
RHR: Whose name do you invoke at your shrine to poetry?
C.T. Salazar: My shrine is abundant! C.D. Wright; Lucille Clifton; Mary Oliver; John Keats; Eduardo Corral; Natasha Trethewey; Osip Mandelstam; Tennessee Williams
RHR: Does an idea for a poem haunt you or do you hunt for an idea?
C.T. Salazar: I think other poets’ lines haunt me until I chew it into something I can chase after. My writing process relies heavily on reading first. I think I read 70% more than I write, and I prefer it that way. I usually spend four to five months reading, and then a month writing, and start over.
RHR: Notebook or paper, pen or pencil?
C.T. Salazar: I'm forever carrying a notebook and pen. I also love the everywhere-at-once-ness of Google docs
RHR: In terms of form, your poetry has this lovely sense of line breaks and use of space. An example of this is detailed in your poem, “Portrait of the Dalmatian that Bit My Mother,” which was originally published in Noble/Gas QRTLY (Issue 205.3). What is your process in terms of using space and the break of line?
C.T. Salazar: Thanks. I am very big on form. I love form, I love being acute to form. I always think that a poem has a physical architecture to itself. There is the content of the poem and then there is the way the poem even looks physically on the page, whether or not the poem builds up like a tower...or digs down. Henry David Thoreau has that great quote, “my head is an organ of burrowing…” and I think about that a lot, To start at the top and then dig down as they move.
But, I always want to consider the physicalness of the poem, is an extension of its content, which goes back to Charles Olson, that the form itself, when the poem has a strong unity, that unity comes from the physicalness being in tune to the content of the poem itself. I always want the layout of the poem to be very intentional.
RHR: Do you believe a poem can be overly crafted?
C.T. Salazar: This is such a hard question. One of my favorite poems is Agha Shahid Ali’s ghazal “Tonight” —it’s form is absolutely flawless. I return to that poem over and over, each time learning something new about craft and faithfulness to form.
RHR: What is your take on the impact of your surroundings on your writing?
C.T. Salazar: For visual images I lean on Mississippi. Mississippi is unique. Our history is not linear as we think of it, because Mississippi has relics in its everyday life from the 19th century, from the 20th century You know, in my town, there are these old barns and Antebellum homes which were built by slaves. In my town, people still live in these homes. These homes have their historical look still. So, I am very captivated by Mississippi's history and how it is not as linear as maybe it is in other parts of the world. Part of our past is still very much alive in Mississippi. I incorporate images of dilapidation, the fact that we have these barns that are slowly collapsing but have been standing since the 19th century and some really old churches.
A more natural phenomena is the river in my city and where I grew up. There are usually recurring rivers in my poems because of this. My town is Columbus, Mississippi. There is a runoff of the Mississippi River called the Tombigbee Waterway that goes straight through our town. I've grown up with that high moving current. People drown in it a lot it. It is a man-made runoff, made for barges and has a very narrow, deep, and fast moving current. So, typically if someone drowns here in Columbus, Mississippi in the Ten-Tom, their body will be recovered in the Gulf within 48 hours. It is a fast-moving current. and unlike our history, that river is very linear.
RHR: Your poems are full of surprises and have such strong and lovely images. Would you share your process of building and combining images?
C.T. Salazar: As far as building images and arriving at a connecting factor, I think in poetry a lot of how I think in music. I am a pianist. I’m fascinated by how musicians build notes into these very surprising chords and how the good part of a song is that moment that you didn’t think could work and you’ve never heard it before, but it works, and... it sounds great. It gives you the chill-bombs because it is so surprising to you. I love when I’m building images because I am trying to find harmonies similar to chords and get to those moments where sometimes there is tension. Disharmony is a real thing in music of two notes that don’t go together. But the resolution afterward has to be twice as strong to connect them together.
C.T. Salazar: Yes, I am really interested in either resolutions from disharmonies, whether it is like my personal competing narratives of being a Southerner, being Latino...and those are two very competing narratives. But, I live in this one body, so there is some resolution in trying in the body of the poem to find that resolution. This always leads to this combination of really odd, juxtaposed images.
RHR: You are also an editor of Dirty Paws. Do you find when you are reading submissions, that you see how some images can be used so amazingly but also how there is a fine line between amazing imagery and what is cliched?
C.T. Salazar: Oh, yeah. You know, when a poet has possession of it, you know it is very organic. And, it is very easy to pick out the cliches. I have heard the phrase thrown out like how many poets are writing about deer that have never seen a deer in their life? But when you do connect with it, when you do get that poem that is very much a yes... when you get to that poem that is very much a poet who is writing in their habitat, a poet who is writing in their atmosphere, and you connect with it, that is something. You know I have read things and I am like this poet must be a Southerner or they must be from Mississippi and then I read the bio and learn they are from nowhere close to me.
RHR: Latinx voices are under represented in many academic core reading lists. When you were younger, what influences were around for you to help you draw your voice out?
C.T. Salazar: Visibility is the biggest factor. Growing up, I had my family here in the South which was my mom’s family, lovely people, but then there was my Dad’s family who didn’t live here, and didn’t speak the same language as me. I knew that they were my family, but because I never saw them because I had very little interaction with them, I never connected myself to that same family until I was much older. So, I didn’t own it until I was about the age children notice these differences, nine, ten, or eleven. I started seeing that my family is a little more complicated than some of my peer’s families. You know, in Mississippi, I wasn’t reading books that Latino people were writing. Now, as a librarian, I am very aware of that. I want to make sure that our children’s books feature brown characters and are written by brown people or shed positive light on Latino people because there is a lot of American literature that is not that way.
If you are walking, and you see a plant, you notice that a plant is there by the leaves and not by the roots. If you didn’t see the plant yourself you wouldn’t know the roots were there. So, when we start this investigation of the you as the product, and then move down from there, back to Thoreau, and his lines, “...my head is an organ for burrowing…” notice yourself and then notice the roots under you. That movement of self recognition is very vital I think.
RHR: You are generous in promoting other poets and sharing lines and poems and books that you really love. Does that stem in part from your experience as a librarian? Being one who loves words to read as well as to write?
C.T. Salazar: That’s a really cool connection. My personal identity is that I am just as much a librarian as I am a writer. I am a researcher, a holder of information. I love to gather and accumulate. But also, my favorite job as a poet is getting to be a cheerleader for other poets.
I love promoting. Some of my favorite writers are my friends and I love sharing their writing. Having those moments of connection are so simple, it takes no time to you know, read someone’s writing and say, “You know, that is really great…” share it and then 40 other people read it and, that’s a lot.
RHR: That is so true. I know I have learned a lot from reading your (Twitter) feed and have read other poets, you know, who I might not have been privy to. Thank you for that.
C.T. Salazar: I am trying to do something every July with a theme now ...this July (2019) I am trying to do 31 days of Latin-X poets. So yeah, everyday a different Chicano or Latino or Puerto Rican or Cuban poet a day, and just share that. And see if anyone else will tag on too.
RHR: If you could bequeath a skill or attitude to other poets, what would it be?
C.T. Salazar: 1. That you can love something and still criticize it. 2.That vulnerability means you’re willing to love yourself and your subject in ways that could put you at risk. 3. & joy is worth the risk.
~~~ fini ~~~
Link to micro chapbook: micro-chap: https://bullcitypress.com/product/this-might-have-meant-fire-inch-39/
Noble Gas QTRLY, "Portrait of the Dalmatian that Bit My Mother" : http://noblegas.org/issue-205-3/c-t-salazar/portrait-of-the-dalmatian-that-bit-my-mother/