Roy G. Guzmán is a Honduran poet whose first collection is coming out from Graywolf Press on May 5, 2020. Raised in Miami, Florida, Roy is the recipient of a 2019 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. Their work has been included in the Best New Poets 2017 anthology and Best of the Net 2017. Roy holds degrees from the University of Minnesota, Dartmouth College, the University of Chicago, and the Honors College at Miami Dade College. They currently live in Minneapolis, where they are pursuing a PhD in Cultural Studies at the University of Minnesota.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Devyn Carmen. Of the process, he said, “Roy Guzmán’s Catrachos is evocative and intense." I am tremendously grateful Roy took the time to answer these questions. In this interview, Roy Guzmán talks about the literary communities that shaped them, the origins of Catrachos’ varied poems, and the touch of an old friend’s hand.
Superstition Review: Catrachos is an exciting, cutting-edge collection of poetry with evocative and controversial content. Will you describe the publication process for this book?
Roy G Guzmán: I finished a draft of Catrachos in 2016, after spending most of that summer with my friend, poet and visual artist D. Allen, on what we unofficially called Thesis Camp. We were about to enter our third year and wanted to have enough work to revise during our final year in the MFA creative writing program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities. I sent that version of my manuscript to Graywolf Press during an open call they had for manuscripts. Rumor has it they received over 2000 manuscripts in August of that year. Towards the end of 2017, Graywolf became Catrachos’ home. I’ll never forget reading the email while having breakfast and reading Marx’s Capital Vol. I in a café that no longer exists in the Seward neighborhood of Minneapolis. When one of the servers saw me cry, she said, “I didn’t know reading Marx was that emotional.” She was the first person I told the news.
Although much of the paperwork for Catrachos was signed in 2017, I didn’t get to work intensely with my press until 2019. That’s typical for a press that has a roster of books scheduled for their next 2-3 years, so I didn’t mind. The official version coming out on May 5 went from having a section that eventually became its own project, to adding and removing poems, to dozens of versions that went through some really minute edits. For much of that process I worked with Jeff Shotts and Chantz Erolin, but I do know that other Graywolf editors and staff had a chance to look at my manuscript and provide their feedback as well. Overall, it felt like a transformative collaborative experience.
SR: An interesting aspect of Catrachos is that there are many poems titled, “Queerodactyl,” all with very different styles and subjects. How do these poems relate to and build upon each other?
RGG: That’s a question that’s always intrigued me ever since the sequence started to unfold itself. The second “Queerodactyl” in the book is the first poem in the sequence I started working on, at the beginning of 2016. What’s strange about the writing experience of that poem is that it always felt like it wanted to amass a lot more than I could’ve given it in just one poem. Although the poem is highly intertextual, self-aware, and in need of using first-, second-, and third-person perspectives, much of what inspired this poem and the overall sequence is taken from my own upbringing. I grew up around the drag ballroom scene in Miami; those memories drop in in slanted ways in the poem, but they also felt like they needed more space.
I can’t remember which poem I wrote next in the sequence, but I do remember playing with different forms, styles, approaches, voices, rhythms, and tones. It soon became clear that it was setting its own course, with grief and celebration as its two main themes, and at some point I considered turning it into its own project. But that last sentiment always felt trivial. Yes, these poems were becoming their own corpus, but when I took a larger view at my manuscript-in-progress, it felt disingenuous to discriminate them from the rest of the book. When the Pulse nightclub massacre happened that year, the Queerodactyl poems felt like they needed to be in the book. Not only did I respect and admire how they would relate to the other poems, but I also learned to appreciate the layers they added to the rest of the book.
To derive a sense of what they were doing as an arc of sorts, I extracted them from the book and let them speak to one another for some time. I learned so much about that part of the process. They became a story within a story. When I look at them, they feel like a parallel story to the films, Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) and Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), spaces where children are trying to negotiate their childhood against a background of horror. Recently, I told a friend that Catrachos might be a book about child abuse. Writing the “Queerodactyl” poems helped me understand that.
SR: What do your literary circles look like, and can you discuss how those circles have influenced your creative process for this collection?
RGG: The Twin Cities has several vibrant literary communities where I’ve been lucky to call many of its finest writers friends and mentors. Because I still attend the University of Minnesota (this time for a PhD), I get to attend readings the university puts together. At the same time, there’s always a literary event you can find around town. Unfortunately, with the new reality imposed on us by COVID-19, all of those events have been cancelled, postponed, or moved online.
Still, my creative process would not be what it is without what this place has already offered me. The Twin Cities boasts of writers from many backgrounds and that cultural richness has allowed me to feel like my voice and my content matter. Minneapolis doesn’t make as many cameos in Catrachos as Tegucigalpa or Miami (Chicago, a place I’ve also lived in, will one day have its own project), yet it’s the place where writers fed me during much of the writing of this book. Writers with disabilities, Indigenous writers, Latinx writers, Black writers, Asian writers, LGBT writers, and writers who have faced other forms of marginalization have taught me much about my linguistic choices, about what I can resurrect, and about needs to be taken to task. I’m incredibly grateful for this Midwestern Babel.
SR: “Self-Portrait According to George W. Bush” is an intense, chilling political piece. Here is an excerpt:
“The Angel of Death says,
The United States has not been in complete
control of its borders… border as in
marca de zapatos de Payless for which I got a bloody
nose at school.”
Can you speak more on how the political climate of Bush’s time influenced your writing?
RGG: The Bush years left me with many scars. From 9/11 to enrolling in the Marines, from surviving three car accidents to graduating into a recession, I never felt at ease and I can say that many people of my generation were also scarred by that Administration’s terrible choices. Reflecting on those years while living under this current Administration perhaps softens the horror of those years for Americans, but the bloodshed the US has left behind since 2001 pretty much set the stage for the negligence and sense of disposability we see now. Not that it matters, but I can’t forgive that man nor his accomplices. Since 2010, there’s been this strange undercurrent of trying to revise his legacy, starting with Michelle Obama defending her friendship with him to Ellen DeGeneres hanging out with the former President. I can’t drink a sip of that neoliberal tap water. Because Americans overvalue niceness above human decency, we continue to dwell in the mess we’re in.
SR: I read in your interview with Hayden’s Ferry Review that you were upset about the lack of literary responses to the Orlando Massacre from “brown folks. In fact, you noticed there were a good amount of cis- white writers covering the topic. What are your thoughts about why this was the case?
RGG: I’d like to believe the literary world has improved in some ways since 2016. But back when Pulse happened, I assume most of the cis- white writers who were published got published because they had connections to literary gatekeepers or were gatekeepers themselves. This behavior still happens. If cis- white writers felt like responding to the Pulse massacre by all means they could and should have, and many of them did, but when their voices become the first responders to a tragedy that has remained largely separate from their everyday lives, I have an issue. Lots of marginalized writers complain about that behavior. It’s a colonizing behavior, if you ask me. It takes resources and knowledge, causes and co-opts trauma, and then tries to sell it as universal suffering or sells it back to you, even though you were directly affected by that trauma. Far from being a gesture of solidarity, these actions committed by cis- white writers, straight or otherwise, come off like forms of intellectual, cultural, emotional, and spiritual theft.
SR: I feel like it would be impossible to talk about “Catrachos” without mentioning “Restored Mural for Orlando.” Can you elaborate on how this poem tells the story of the Orlando Massacre, and what impact you hope to have on the literary community?
RGG: When “Restored Mural for Orlando” became its own chapbook to raise funds for victims of the massacre, I thought it would become its own, specific effort. Only until I had written much of Catrachos did it become clear that the poem needed a space in the book. Originally, I had thought about the poem as a coda to the book—especially because I thought I was writing a more traditional bildungsroman but in poetry form. With more revision, “Restored Mural for Orlando” appears towards the center of the book, opening up a section that contends with the question, What happens in the aftermath? The poems that follow try to respond to and complicate that question.
The memory and vicarious grief of the Pulse massacre will always stay with me. I can’t measure the kind of impact “Restored Mural for Orlando” had on the literary community, but I do know that the process of writing it completely altered how I read poetry, what I think about the possibilities of poetry, and beyond. If I ever lose my way in life, remind me that I once wrote this poem out of love and pain.
SR: As a Dominican reader, your writing on the Hispanic experience and having a religious family personally resonated with me. Can you discuss how your heritage and culture influenced “Catrachos”?
RGG: My Honduran background, what I remember of it, what I’ve forgotten about it, is at the heart of Catrachos and why I felt I needed to write this book. I didn’t grow up with any Honduran literary figures. The closest to a literary idol I had was Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío. At the same time, because I grew up in Miami and was raised by a Cuban stepfather, the poems in Catrachos cover a wide range of sounds and spaces.
In interviews with writers, one common thing that comes up is this idea of wanting to see in the world books you wish you’d had access to as a child. I was obsessed with dinosaurs as a kid; I wrote myself a bunch of Queerodactyls. There were deaths in my life I couldn’t properly grieve; I wrote these lives in poems so I never forget them. There’s a particularly painful memory my mind often reproduces whenever I remember my childhood in Honduras; I made that the poem that opens Catrachos. Writing this book healed me in some ways; in others, it taught me so much about appreciating where I come from and celebrating the little parts that make me who I am. And for that I’ll always be thankful to the people and resources that enabled me to write this book.
SR: What type of work are you looking forward to publishing in the future?
RGG: I go back and forth on this, but I’d love to finish a memoir. I’ve started writing it, but it’s still at that stage where it wants to unravel, so I let it. I also have several short stories and essays I’d like to send out. My teaching, PhD work, and life commitments constantly leave me with little time to write new work or revise. Mostly, I am allowing myself to keep reading and to remember that I wrote a book, an achievement I never would’ve thought possible for myself. I’m still in disbelief!
SR: What does your writing space look like?
RGG: At the end of last year I bought myself a new desk and an office chair because the desk was falling apart and the chair I had was giving me back problems. My fiancé put them together for me, bless his beautiful heart. Now, it’s covered with books on ethnography, philosophy, economics, oral histories, and poetry. Most of these books will be included in my preliminary exams for my PhD. Others, such as Jaquira Díaz’s memoir Ordinary Girls (2019) and Sarah M. Broom’s The Yellow House (2019), can’t wait to reconfigure my mind as soon as I can turn my attention to them. I’m trying to drink more water so I’ve got a repurposed mason jar. To my left, I’ve got an official copy of Catrachos. A poet recently shared a picture of his book online; the copy in his hands, he noted, has been the one he reads from since the book came out. I’m hoping my copy of Catrachos ages just as gracefully. I’m hoping that, as I continue to hold its pages, the feeling of touching an old friend’s hands never leaves.