Chicano poet David Tomas Martinez received an MFA in creative writing from San Diego State University and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Houston where he is an editor of Gulf Coast literary journal. His first collection of poems, Hustle, will be released by Sarabande Books in the spring of 2014.
NBC Latino contributor Erika L. Sánchez spoke to Martinez about his childhood, his family, and his frank examination of machismo.
1. Tell me about growing up in San Diego and becoming involved in gangs. What did you think your future held during this time?
I was fortunate to grow up near the border. I think being from Southern California and being Chicano, there is a definite strong sense of Chicano culture. As a kid, I just thought I was American like everybody else, but as I grew older, I began to understand identity. I got involved in gangs after my parents got divorced when I was twelve. The way everything went down, I got angry. We moved around a lot, but my grandmother’s house was always home base. There was a kid across the street who I had always been close to starting banging and got jumped in. I wanted to bang, so I got jumped too. It’s given me a lot of fodder to write about and to think about who I am and why I chose that. I was looking for some sort of familial ties. I never thought I was going to be a writer during this time. Never. I didn’t graduate high school. I thought I was going to jail and that was it.
2. How did you become a writer?
When I was 21, I decided I wanted to go to college. I had already gone to the Navy and gotten kicked out. After that, I went to Job Corp to get a painting certificate so I could paint houses. I took an English course at a community college and I remembered I liked to read. I was also interested in slang and talking slick when I was in high school, so I knew I had a certain faculty for language. My poetry instructor suggested I take a writing course at San Diego State University. I ended up taking one my first semester there as a junior. The first poem I ever turned in was a poem that could be read up or down the page and I thought it was ingenious. The professor, Glover Davis, who became my first mentor, told me it was a one trick pony. I got pissed and wouldn’t listen to him. I think writers have the strongest and most fragile egos. I ended up taking his advice at the end and we became friends. Then one day he asked me what I thought of getting my Masters and I applied a week later. Once I started to get my Masters, I started getting some poetry tattoos and was like, alright, I’m going to take this seriously and be the best poet that I can be.
3. A lot of the manuscript seems to deals with coming to terms with your relationship with your father. How did writing Hustle help you understand him?
Growing up, I can say without a doubt, that I did not like my father. One thing I can say about my dad is that I love him, but it was begrudgingly. I felt that he was too hard. The real turning point in our relationship was when I was 16 years old, I had known a woman for about a month and I got her pregnant. I told my mom and she freaked out and told me I ruined my life, and my dad was calm and said, “you made a mistake and there’s nothing we can do about it now.” It really changed our relationship, and then as I became a father and saw the difficulties of it, I stopped blaming my dad for everything. When you become an adult, you stop blaming your parents for everything. I saw my grandfather, rest in peace, chase my dad, my uncles, and even some of my aunts with a machete. My grandfather was a hard man and as I began to see things a little more clearly, I had a lot more respect for my dad. And that’s what I deal with in my book, the idea of masculinity.
4. I do see a deep interrogation of machismo throughout the manuscript. The speaker has so many moments of startling clarity and self-awareness. Tell me more about that.
In Latino culture it’s important to be macho and it’s important to be tough, to be strong and support your family– these kinds of anachronistic ideas of masculinity. I’m not saying those things aren’t right, but I look at them and wonder how much my grandfather was pushed to be the kind of person he was because of the societal expectations, and how much, as a man, do you get away with? Just thinking about the discrepancies when it comes to sex– a man can sleep with a whole slew of women and he’s a pimp, and a woman sleeps with the same amount of people, and she’s a woman of ill repute.
6. How did it become important for you to explore these issues through your art?
You know in any good piece of art when their truth is poking through. I know those moments when I write. I think, “This is true, this hurts, and this is not ok.” I indict myself in so many poems. I think that to a certain extent, you have to be unafraid to make a fool of yourself.
7. What are your future plans?
I plan to go on the job market this year as a practice run. I’m in the fourth year of my PhD and will soon be Dr. Martinez, so I plan on getting a tenure-track position. I will also continue to edit Gulf Coast and go on a book tour to promote my book.