Meditative and Less Irritable

Article by annalia

Many interesting artists and organizations live and work in Houston, but the sprawling nature of the city makes it difficult to familiarize yourself with everyone and everything. 

Well, don’t worry: We’ll help you meet Houston’s most vibrant creative people. We’re here to make introductions. 

Today, meet Roberto Tejada, the new poetry hire at the University of Houston. Brazos Bookstore’s Annalia sat down to speak with Tejada about his new home, the importance of making connections across artistic communities, and the difficulties of objectivity in writing.

Brazos Bookstore: What do you like about Houston so far?

Roberto Tejada: It's an immense urban environment—a landscape similar to some large cities that I've grown accustomed to, like Los Angeles, Mexico City, and, more recently, São Paulo. Houston is a global city that has an incredible human texture. That’s what great urban cities are about.

BB: Lacy M. Johnson [Houston resident and author of THE OTHER SIDE] views Houston as a series of small towns sort of pocketed together.

RT: That's definitely true. I mean, I've only been here a month, but I used to come down with some regularity for cultural events when I was living in Dallas. But I can tell that, yes, there are pockets—microcosms—here in Houston. Once you start getting a command of those clusters, links to other parts of the city open up.

BB: What is your vision for your career here? Do you have any goals or ideas—things you want to do?

RT: Well, the most immediate goals are to become integrated into the English department, the creative writing program, and the school of art at the University of Houston—its events, and its links to the cultural offerings of the city itself. And in that respect, I also want to get integrated into Houston’s larger literary culture. In terms of my career here, I have a book of poems that I'm currently working on, and also a book of art history that links the cities I mentioned earlier. I'm looking at Los Angeles in the '50s, '60s, and '70s; Mexico City in the '80s and '90s; and São Paulo in the year 2000 to the present.

BB: You write about art, but do you make art?

RT: No, I don't. My dad, who’s now retired, was a physician, but he was also a medical photographer. He was an amateur painter too, so a lot of my interest in art comes from that. I've taken line drawing classes, which I think is essential for any art historian and anybody who writes about art. And I think it's great for writers as well to get a sense of what the hand does on the page in a different mode—when one draws instead of writes.

BB: Yeah, especially since so many writers these days write only electronically.

RT: Only electronically—yes! But drawing is about getting the eye and its sense of perception and observation to resonate with the act of recording or documenting.

BB: What kind of impact do you think growing up around visual arts has had on you as a writer?

RT: Well, in a sense, my training goes back to the years I spent in Mexico City from 1987 to 1997, and that was in my 20s and 30s. In lieu of graduate school, which I did later on in my life, I was immersed in the intellectual and artistic life that was taking place in the '80s and '90s in Mexico City, which was fierce and dynamic. That had the greatest impact on me. And Mexico City was an environment where visual artists and writers, poets and painters intermingled.

BB: Do you have any tips for artists who want to intermingle but don't know anyone from different communities?

RT: Follow the advice given to actors: Just show up. If there's an artist whose work appeals to you in particular, ask to do a studio visit. The studio visit is a way of honing your skills at having a conversation with an actual object or series of objects in a room. And it's a very deep way of interacting with another artist. If you're a writer, it's a particularly deep way of interacting because you're navigating and translating across different materials—language on the one hand, and visual and material forms on the other.

BB: Turning to FULL FOREGROUND [Tejada’s most recent book of poetry], how did the project develop over the many years it took to write?

Full Foreground (Camino del Sol ) By Roberto Tejada Cover Image
ISBN: 9780816521333
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: University of Arizona Press - September 20th, 2012

RT: The book went through many transmutations. I suppose a first version of it was probably completed around 1999. The initial, skeletal architecture of it was written between 1995 and 1999, when I was still living in Mexico. Many cultural and social brutalities were taking place around me, and those brutalities seeped into the writing. When I moved back to the United States in 1998, I kept working on the manuscript. As time passed, I saw that the historical sweep of FULL FOREGROUND began to grow. For example, the final piece in the book is a kind of coda, written in conversation with the ten-year anniversary of the events of 9/11. I wanted to create this kind of telescopic effect—what Walter Benjamin calls “the telescoping of time.” So you're in the present, but then you begin to see that the present, in incremental ways, is actually looking backward in time.

BB: I kept thinking the title—FULL FOREGROUND—was an attempt to suggest no background, whether or not that’s even possible.

RT: [The title] is meant to ask the question: Is it even possible to separate figure from foreground? And this question of the figure/foreground relation interests me in terms of visual representation as well. But when we think of everything as “full foreground,” it gives a sense of the immediacy of the present—an immersive quality of present tense that doesn't eradicate the past but instead brings the past into that foreground as well. So there becomes very little contrast between past and present.

BB: You said you're working on a book of poems right now. Is it very different from this past one?

RT: There are some poems that build on the kinds of questions I ask in my last two books—poems that look at historic moments, situating themselves in a kind of theatre of history or memory, taking a maximalist approach. But part of me wants to return to the style of my first book of poems, which is much more minimalist. Maybe I'm trying to discover how to reconcile those two approaches. So I've been publishing some of what might end up in this next book, and some of the poems are broad and sweeping, and others are just 140-character, Twitter-like interventions.

BB: Have you thought about working in the long form, like writing a novel or a memoir or anything?

RT: I would love to be able to write a novel because I'm an avid reader of novels and they produce nothing but wonder in me as to the possibilities of that kind of architecture. One of the most recent examples is Roberto Bolaño's 2666, which is just—there are no words to describe the kind of effect it can have on a reader, once you've been through the five different sections, the five different novels within the larger novel. And I just marvel at the kind of page count that involves—the sheer virtuosity of having to sustain that kind of performance. 

So the short answer is: No, I don't think I could write a novel. But it leads me to wonder whether the immersive quality of something like FULL FOREGROUND can be a trap. And how can one create different kinds of music if the immersive quality is so tightly bound? I love the idea of plainsong, for example. Something meditative and less irritable.

In terms of memoir—the kind of art history that interests me is that which can be read allegorically as memoir. I think we in the humanities want to think think that we can disinvest ourselves from [subjectivity] and write in an empirical mode in which the author is this cool, distant, God-like figure looking from above at the object below. But it's an impossible task. I'm very skeptical when, as a reader, you get a sense that there's not a body or a person behind the so-called research.

The kind of art stories I want to tell take the life of the observer of art very seriously. So, in a sense, they’re memoir.

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