...with C.T. Salazar

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. 

RHR: Interesting.

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/

...with Jericho Brown


Jericho Brown is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Brown’s first book, Please (New Issues 2008), won the American Book Award. His second book, The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was named one of the best of the year by Library Journal, Coldfront, and the Academy of American Poets. He is also the author of the collection The Tradition, which will be published this spring. His poems have appeared in Buzzfeed, The Nation, The New Republic, The New York Times, The New Yorker, TIME magazine, and several volumes of The Best American Poetry anthologies. He is an associate professor and the director of the Creative Writing Program at Emory.

Jericho Brown Skyped with River Heron Review co-editors Robbin Farr and Judith Lagana on December 17 to discuss his insights into the influence of music, other writers, and his youth on his writing, among other observations. What follows is the interview.

RHR: What is the one bit of advice you offer to your students which you feel is most valuable?

Jericho Brown: I think that it’s important that when you are writing a poem you have a metaphor for poetry. Meaning, something that is not poetry. Something that is completely separate from poetry.

For me, music is the metaphor. For somebody else it might be roller skating or running or cooking. The thing is, it must be something that you really have some other interest in, so you can look at the poem and say, “How is this thing like that thing?”

When I’m writing a poem, I  might be able to say, “Look, there's not enough bass right here. I can’t translate what that means, but I know that’s true.” Somebody else might say, “I need some spice right here,” like somebody who cooks might say, “I need oregano.” They would be able to translate, “This should cook a little longer, and this should actually be served cold. Why was I thinking it had to be served hot?”

RHR:  How do you find time to write?

Jericho Brown: I’ve always been very good, for whatever reason. No matter what’s going on, I just won’t sleep or I will just pull my car over, because I don’t want to forget the line. I have become very aware. What usually happens for me is there are these long periods where I feel like I am not writing at all, which isn’t true. The one thing that being in a long term relationship taught me, is that I was indeed writing all the time. You don’t think you're writing. You have to have a boyfriend to say, “you’re always writing” to realize, “Oh, it is true.”  I do take time. I do sort of have a practice and I am scribbling here and there. But you know, those little moments of scribbling here and there will, in my experience, round up to one larger moment.

RHR:  Tell us about your writing process

Jericho Brown: If I am traveling, I know that I can only do so much. I have a journal with me, and I try to push around a thought or a line, and I sort of try to make it musical.  I am always scribbling down lines, things I overhear, things that come to me, so that there is this running list of sentences or lines in a literary page of my notes, in my iPhone. On Sunday, whatever lines are there, I’ll cut and paste and dump them into an email and send it to myself, then dump that into a core document. Then I start looking at what I have and pretty much, that’s what I’m working on through the week. Can I push this line around? Does this line have some type of formal suggestion to it?  

There is a part of my mind that wants to escape all of the things that are going on and wants to create this space of introspection and solitude, which I can find when I am about to, or am in the middle of, writing a poem. So ultimately, to answer your question, the process varies. But, there is always something going on, and then I can be disciplined, you know, during those months in the summer and definitely during the holidays.

RHR:  As you go through the process of writing, do you get to a place where you feel you are over-crafting? How do you know when a poem is finished? Have you ever been in a situation when you are crafting and say, “Ah, that’s too much.”?

Jericho Brown: That is a really interesting question. Talking to my students about their writing leads me to a better explanation about my own writing. I was speaking with a student and explaining certain differences about abstract language and different kinds of concrete language. I was explaining to her that it's not that you can’t use abstract language in a poem; it’s that you have to earn it.  It is a matter of intuitive or instinctual timing so that you have a certain amount of concretes that lead to an opportunity or an abstraction. But, you can’t do that if you are just talking abstractions in your writing. That amounts to a sermon. Then, you are not writing a poem.

So I’m telling her this, and she was asking me about revisions (for her portfolio) and I said, “One of the ways which you will know that you’ve taken the poem as far as you can is that every part of the poem has to do with at least another part of the poem. There is that resonance singing all the way down, and there is a resonance singing all the way back up, right? That resonance is throughout the poem. That something you say at the beginning of the poem is answered in some way or responded to at the end.”

I know I am done with a poem when revising the poem some things have or will say something to something else in that unit.  You know, I’m really interested in the poem itself as an object, really interested in it as a single unit of something.

Like this earpiece, this is real, like this water bottle or this pen, you know?  What are the parts of this pen? When I explain this to my students, I actually use a microwave. The door of the microwave is its own thing, and yet the door of a microwave only has meaning to the microwave. What I am thinking about when I am finishing a poem, I’m sort of going back to the microwave to see, do you have your own door? Do you have your own keypad? Do you have your own tray? And those are different elements. Sometimes that’s metaphor. Sometimes that’s story. Sometimes that’s the line itself or the music or rhythm that the line creates and does it have something to do with the eating of food?  Use what is useful to yourself as an object. That's the way I think about revision for the single poem.

RHR:  When you were creating the duplex, was that something you set out to do? Or was it an evolution of sorts? Would you just share a little bit about your process in the creation of the duplex?

Jericho Brown: I’ve been writing these duplexes in my mind for about ten years. I’ll tell you all something very strange. My dad had a lawn and landscaping service when I was growing up. My mom would clean houses and my dad would do these yards, and often they would do both for any one family, right? So you know, I grew up doing the same, the same kind of work. More on the outside than on the inside, and whenever anyone asks me about the inception of a poem or of an idea I always think well, I was mowing the lawn.

Let me tell you all something that is weird about that. There is something about mowing the lawn for so many years and something about that work. I mean when I was a kid growing up, I was always mowing the lawn and because something in me was always a poet. I was always making up stories, and I was always trying to write rhymes. I was always trying to make poems. My mother was putting poems on the refrigerator as far back as I can remember, so once I figured out what rhyme was, that was it.  I would just write words down that could rhyme.

Looking back at those yards, I will never forget how, when we would drive away, we would be looking at the yard and we’d be like...hmmm, that’s pretty. Do you know what I mean?

I think there is something about that process. And it was hard work, you know?  I am from Louisiana, so it was hot and you know, the days are long. Which, I think is the way I think about writing in that I was doing the labor to make something pretty. That’s sort of how I think about it.

So, when you ask me about that, the first thing I thought was oh, when I was mowing the lawn. There is something about that. Anytime anyone asks me about writing, I think of mowing the lawn which is so funny because I have not mowed the lawn in years.

You are always making patterns. Any work you are doing, particularly outside, you are literally making patterns in the grass or patterns in planting or making rows, so you are making lines.

RHR:  Isn’t that true, you are making lines on so many levels.

Jericho Brown:  Exactly. And I think that has a lot to do with the way I think about form and about structure, which I do think of as two different things.

So the duplexes came because I had written formal poems in my first book in particular. There were many formal poems. For whatever reason I didn’t trust the sonnet. I wanted to do something other than that. I wanted to write these poems that were sonnet descendents.  If you read my first book there are all these 14-line poems. They are not exactly sonnets. All these 13 or 15-line poems could have been exact sonnets, but I clearly wouldn’t let them be. And that was a very conscious decision at the time. I had this idea that if the poem was a sonnet, then it would sing back to the tradition of poetry and that I could establish my individual will or my individual ideas. I don’t know why I though that, I mean, I was a very young person and you know, I was an idealist. But, I was under that impression.

And then, years later, having written a second book and thinking about it, there is a ghazal called “Hustle” in my second book. I was also thinking about the duplex and the sonnet. I have a blues poem in the second book, as well, so I was sort of always was thinking about, how do I write a sonnet crown that allows me to get where something happens in the last line? And in that last line, you make that last line, the first line of the next poem. And when writing these, my goal is always to write a ghazal that is also a sonnet that is also a blues poem.

So, there is something that happens in those last two lines. There is something that happens, I think, from the first line of each sonnet...right?  Like, if you only look at the first line of each sonnet in a crown, it is sort of like looking at the topic sentences of an essay, I mean, it is the essay a sixteen year old gets, but supposedly, something in my mind thinks, oh, if I just read the first line then I should know everything….right?

RHR: Like knowing the gist of it, right?

Jericho Brown:  Yeah, I wanted to make a poem that made that true. I was concerned and thinking about how I was going to have to do certain kinds of juxtaposition that we already make way for and accept when we see ghazals. I had that in mind. And then I knew, I mean, what changes the poem? Why isn’t it just a ghazal?  And I think that had to do with sort of the storification of the repeated lines that are changed by the following line. That something, after the repeated line, makes the repeated line sound like singing, sound like spell-casting. That is the part of the poem that I think of as the blues.

RHR:  Your work has many references to music. There is clearly an honoring of music. Were you surrounded by it while growing up, and was it part of your life?

Jericho Brown: Yeah, it was there when I was growing up. I think it is part of everybody’s life, but because I was such a sensitive kid  I made much more of it than what other people might make of it. I paid attention to the way it would change a room.

I paid attention to people.  I’m from a card playing family, so when people would be playing cards and having a good time and smoking cigarettes and all that, there were certain songs that would come on when the music would be playing, and everyone would sort of pause. I mirrored that. I watched that. I paid a lot of attention to the music that was being sung at the church where I grew up. I was always fascinated by how different people would sing the same song different ways, and I was fascinated by people’s reactions to those songs.

When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in the library, so I got really obsessed.  I would play records in the library, and I wanted to know what Aretha Franklin sounded like in 1960, and then I wanted to know what she sounded like in 1970, and then I wanted to know what she sounded like in 1980. These are things I wanted to know when I was 12 years old for whatever reason. I wanted to chart that, and I wanted to think that, oh, she could do this now or oh, now she’s scatting a song. There are songs in the ‘80’s Luther Vandross was recording for her, and she’s scatting.  She hadn’t scat like that in years. So, those are the kinds of things that as a kid, I was obsessed with, much in the same way kids are obsessed with Marvel comics, or that kids are obsessed with certain video games. I just could not afford Marvel comic books, but I could listen to music, and music was much more. Although my parents didn’t give me any lessons in music, they sort of supported me or were interested in buying tapes that became the music that was being played around the house.

RHR: When you are writing, what ghosts hover in the background for you?

Jericho Brown: I’ll say this about music, and I think this has to do with the ghosts. What I am thinking about when writing a poem is I am thinking of this poem as object. The other thing I think about is poem as song. When I say poem as song I mean if a poem is like a song, then I can create metaphors that speak to me when I am trying to revise the poem.

What I mean by that is the ghosts in the room for me are people like those singers, like Diana Ross or Aretha Franklin or Whitney Houston. But also the people who wrote and produced those songs where people who had ideas about what songs should be like during certain periods.  So, the truth is, Kenneth Babyface Edmonds is over my shoulder, and Barry Gordy is over my shoulder, and Michael Masse is over my shoulder, and Holland-Dozier-Holland is over my shoulder and so is Valerie Simpson.

Those people are people I think of as being over my shoulder because when I am writing a poem and I’m having a problem, I try to think about what they would do? And these are very inventive people. We don’t really think about how inventive these people were. Holland-Dozier-Holland because they were always trying to make for new sounds. They would have instruments that did not even exist in the United States flown to the United States until they could find ways to use them. Or they would do things like have people bring in bike chains and just throw the chains on the floor and find ways to use those sounds later.

I think that it’s important that when you are writing a poem, you have a metaphor for poetry that is not poetry but something completely separate from poetry. For me,  music is the metaphor. For somebody else it might be roller skating or running or cooking or going shopping at the mall. The thing is that you really have to have some other interest so you can look at the poem and say, “How is this thing like that thing?”

Somebody like LeBron James might be in the room because I’m thinking about just plain old excellence. Somebody like Serena Williams might be in the room because I’m thinking about excellence. Because you know, I am thinking I need to make a poem that is like what they do when they hit a tennis ball or when they put a the ball through the net. My poem needs to be like that.

And then there are all those writers. Baldwin is very important to me because he is and was such a truth teller, such a spiritual person who was really trying, in my opinion, really trying to figure out how to make use of his spiritual self in his writing and how to reconcile the person he was as an adult to the Christian he was as a child.

Essex Hemphill is a very powerful poet, but he also wrote essays. He was a community oriented poet, you know. He helps me think about my poems as useful objects. That’s the  reason that I like to say or use “microwave.” I think about music in the way I do is because I know it creates in people a feeling, and that feeling allows for a different sense of how they can relate to one another when they are in a space or in the space together.

I am interested in poems that can be used. Those are two of the people, Baldwin, Essex Hemphill, and you know, people that are just pop culture famous. I mean, I am a big Lucille Clifton fan. I think she is the greatest. I’ve met Gwendolyn Brooks. I think Gwendolyn Brooks is actually, well, my closest friends who are poets are astounded by the fact that I can’t talk about Gwendolyn Brooks without crying. I think meeting her became a huge influence for me.

I met her when I was writing poetry, but I wasn’t yet a poet.  I might have been 21-22 years old or something like that. She was an example to me of, and I mean to this day I believe Gwendolyn Brooks is the kindest person who ever walked the earth. Definitely in the 20th Century.

Gwendolyn Brooks had a conversation with me where she was talking to me like I was an adult when I really, really wasn’t, which made me feel like I wanted to be an adult. I went to Dillard University, and because she was visiting the college and since I was a halfway smart kid, I was asked to go to the dinner, which is what we do with half-way smart kids, right? So I’m sitting next to her, and she turns to me and she says, “So what is your conception of the line?” And all I got from that was that I needed to have a conception of the line.

She had a way of talking to a person. She had this way. She mentioned to me this new anthology that had been edited, this anthology of African American literature. She asked me what I thought of it. I hadn’t even known it existed. She was putting me in a position to think about what my life needed to be, but I thought whatever that book was, that is the cool thing, and maybe I should have an answer or maybe I should consciously have an answer.  And she asked me about this book. Of course I told her I hadn’t read it or seen it. She started talking about decisions that were made and selections that were made and a week later, in my college mailbox, who knows how, was that book, signed by Gwendolyn Brooks. I mean in retrospect, even in that moment when I got it, I was like , “Oh, I have to go do something. I need to meet that.

Yeah, so, she is there. You know, she loved poetry. She really believed in it as a spirit that could change the way we saw things in this nation in particular. She believed in poetry as a guiding cultural force, and I loved that about her.

So she is in the room. She says this one thing in her lecture when she became the United States Poet Laureate, “no cliches in poetry, and no cliches in life.” When she says “no cliches in life” she says it like it comes from on high, so that’s something I’m always thinking about. I mean I want every line to be a surprise, and I really got that from her. In Brooks’ poems every line is a surprise.

There are a lot of people who are in the room. I’m in the room too, you know. There is a me when I was nineteen years old who was really an at-risk kid. I was really using poems when I was nineteen to stay alive. I would read something, and I would find out about a poet, and I would say, “Oh, I should just read all of the poems by Essex Hemphill,” and I was like, “Oh, if I read all of the poems by Essex Hemphill, I won’t kill myself until after I have read all of those poems.” Then it was Melvin Dixon, then I read about Essex Hemphill which led me to Melvin Dixon and I was like, “Oh, I’ll just read all of the poems by Melvin Dixon. Then I’ll kill myself.”  This is really weird logic, but poems really, a lot of poems kept me alive.

Maybe some people say that, but I really mean it.  It gave me something else to do, something that I could really concentrate on and love and feel and experience and have inward experiences through, and it was for a period of my life when the inward experience I was having through reading poetry was the only time that inward experience was not an experience of dread.

We do gain, who knows if it is good or bad, but we do gain pleasure from some of the most dour of poems. Hopefully some of that pleasure is derived from an idea that having read the poem we can make for a situation that is less dour.

Order Jericho Brown’s new book, The Tradition