Mexican-American poet and author Tomás Q. Morín grew up in Mathis, a tiny South Texas town near Corpus Christi. He describes this as a place where “flat acres of farm land begin to give way to palm trees and eventually the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico.” Recently, Morín won the prestigious 2012 APR/Honickman First Book Prize for his collection A Larger Country. Morin’s dynamic and sometimes unsettling poems skillfully cast an inquisitive eye on history, cruelty, and human suffering.
NBC Latino contributor Erika L. Sanchez spoke to Morín about his family history, his future projects, and his fascination with the mysteries of the human condition.
I didn’t notice any overt Latino cultural “markers” in your collection, and I was intrigued by your use of the Yiddish word “zaydee” instead of “grandfather” or “abuelo.” What role does your culture play in your work?
My name doesn’t particularly scream out Mexican American or Latino. I think that sometimes if someone sees my author photo, my ethnicity might be a little ambiguous as well. Because of that, once people do find out that I’m a Latino author, some have certain expectations of the type of subject matter they’ll find, and I guess I just find it fun to upset those expectations.
The reason I use the Yiddish word “zaydee” is because a long time ago, I remembered my grandmother telling me before she passed away that her father’s family came from the Canary Islands. In my research I discovered that among the groups of immigrants from the Canary Islands who came to Mexico and Texas – New Spain – there was a large group who were conversos. They were Jews who had hidden their Jewish identities and had assumed Catholic ones in order not to face the Inquisition. I slip those kinds of things in my poetry just to have fun and in a sense to honor that possibility that my family might have this background.
In some of your ‘delightfully disturbing’ poems you write from the point of view of a real historical figure. Have you always been interested in exploring the past through poetry?
I was a history major for a while as an undergrad and there’s just something about reading about real people. I’ve always been attracted to learning the ways in which human beings have mistreated each other. It’s not that I don’t like happy stories, but there’s something about suffering that moves me, and as a writer, I find that oftentimes most of my poems are responses to suffering or cruelty. They just provoke something in me that I feel I need to answer. My dancing bears poem came out of reading a flyer from, I think, the World Wildlife Fund that had to do with dancing bears, and I thought “I have to write something about this.” When people are brutal to each other, that feels like a puzzle, because in my mind, I can’t understand how someone can do something that abhorrent to another person. And I think that part of it is trying to work out that mystery in poetry.
What advice would you give young Latino writers?
Have a thick skin, and know there are a million things out there that will try to get in the way of what you’re trying to accomplish. Life is supposed to get in the way of any artist making art and what you have to do is push back.
If art is important enough for you, you have to make room in your life for that. Take rejection in stride, as well as acceptance and success, and realize that it’s hard for all of us. None of us have had an easy road, and getting to that first book is just the next step. You have to keep pushing beyond that. I don’t think it ever really gets that much easier. And have faith in whatever your particular gifts are as a writer. If you don’t believe in yourself, there’s no way an editor or a judge or publishing house is going to have faith in you. Be fearless. And read, of course.
4. What are you working on now? What are your future plans?
I am almost finished co-editing an anthology with the poet Mari L’Esperance. It’s called Coming Close: 40 Essays to Philip Levine, and it is about him as a teacher and as a mentor. I also just started co-editing an anthology on the Golden Record, which is aboard the Voyager I and Voyager II, two spacecrafts that were launched in the late 70s. Aboard each spacecraft is a record that has a collection of music, photos, and greetings from the planet Earth in the event that 1,000 years from now, any life force will be able to play this record and have an introduction to our planet. I also finally have a working full draft of my second collection, so I’m excited about that.
Erika L. Sánchez is a poet and freelance writer living in Chicago. She graduated Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Illinois at Chicago, was a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship to Madrid, Spain, and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Mexico. She is currently the sex and love advice columnist for Cosmopolitan for Latinas and a contributor for The Huffington Post and other publications. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, or www.erikalsanchez.com