Poetry as Thinking-Through: A Q&A with Roberto Tejada

When people ask me about AWP (short for The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference and Bookfair, though no one calls it that), I say it’s more like a literary summer camp than an actual conference. I can’t prove or disprove this as I have never been, but that’s what it seems like on paper: you go back every year to try to see the friends you’ve written letters to all year, and you try to go to the most fun activities on the few days you have. It’s a place to stock up on swag. It’s also a rite of passage, a place to get away from the safe bubble of your university and find out who you are.

Though AWP travels around (last year it was in Seattle; this year it’s in Los Angeles), the Texas Book Festival has been Austin-based for the past twenty years. The lineup for the 2015 installment this weekend (October 16 through October 18) features over two hundred fifty authors, more than twenty venues (including the State capital), some odd eighty exhibitors, live music, food trucks. Again, sounds more like a party than a bunch of stuffy panels, right? With canon authors like Margaret Atwood, as well as debut novelists like Houston native Gwendolyn Womack, it’s fun to have TBF so close!

Bonus: we convinced poet and memoirist Nick Flynn, lyric video guru and poetess Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gregory Pardlo to come see us after TBF on their way back to Brooklyn! In anticipation of their reading, I had a chat with poet, art historian, and University of Houston professor Roberto Tejada on poetry beyond the page.


Brazos Bookstore: Why are book festivals, conferences, conventions, etc. important? (Are they?)

Roberto Tejada: They are inasmuch as the social life of the book is as wide as it is welcoming, making it possible to connect in manners that have no instrumental aim. 

BB: Sometimes it’s easier to define something by saying what it isn’t. Ergo, poetry is NOT…

RT: First the negative, so as to get to the positive. Poetry is not solely the container of information. [As in, for example: "Do not forget that a poem, although it is composed in the language of information, is not used in the language-game of giving information," Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel; see, therefore, Rosa Alcalá's poem "Voice Activation" in THE VOLTA BOOK OF POETS, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson, Sidebrow Books, 2014] 

Nor is it only expression....It's more in keeping with what George Oppen called a form of thought; the key term for me in that paraphrase is "form": facts, feelings, and assertions, but as organized—a thinking-through; a performance—in applied speech.

BB: Write me a haiku about something you saw today.

—right at the end of the road
four-sided figure
car crash onlooker delays

BB: What are your writing tools of choice? (Do you write on a computer or are you analog?)

RT: Analog and digital: legal-size ruler-lined bound ledger in tandem with word-processing software.

BB: Name something that inspired you recently that is not a poem.

Jacolby Satterwhite's "The Matriarch's Rhapsody."

BB: Do you have any poems/lines of poetry memorized? If so, what are they?

RT: Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Windhover."

I caught this morning morning's minion, king- 
    dom of daylight's dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding 
    Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding 
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing 
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing, 
As a skate's heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding 
    Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding 
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing! 

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here 
    Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion 
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
   No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear, 
    Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.

BB: Finish this sentence: When I think of the Houston writing community, I think of...

RT: .....the transcultural future.....

Roberto Tejada is the author of the poetry collections FULL FOREGROUND, EXPOSITION PARK, and MIRRORS FOR GOLD. Other publications include National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment, A Ver: Celia Alvarez Muñoz, essays in books on photographers Graciela Iturbide and Miguel Rio Branco, and critical writings on contemporary U.S. and Latino American artists in Afterimage, Aperture, Bomb, The Brooklyn Rail, SF Camerawork, and Third Text. In Mexico this year, a volume of his selected poems will appear as TODO EN EL AHORA with translations into Spanish by poets Alfonso D’Aquino and Gabriel Bernal Granados, and poet Omar Pérez.  

Nick Flynn, Rachel Eliza Griffiths, and Gregory Pardlo will read on October 19 at 7 P.M.

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