Author Spotlight: Sebastián H. Páramo
by Sebastián H. Páramo | ISBN: 9780810146488 Oct. 15, 2023 | pp. 112 | Northwestern University Press/Curbstone Books
Can you describe the environment(s) where you wrote your book? This could be the room, the desk, the city, an MFA program, a fellowship, or any other environmental factor (you only wrote when it rained, you always wrote with fresh flowers in the room, etc.). For many years, I wrote in bed on a laptop. When I started my MFA in 2010, I didn’t have a dedicated desk, I’d find myself in the Sarah Lawrence College library basement in the computer lab.
Later, when I was juggling three jobs to live in my six-floor walk-up in Harlem, I’d find myself in diners or coffee shops open late because my apartment was oftentimes not comfortable. Think Coffee on 8th Ave was fairly consistent. Mudsmith, a coffee shop/bar open until midnight became my staple when I moved back to Texas and became involved in the Dallas literary arts scene.
Finding a routine was important after the MFA and I started to develop that when I did my first writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center. Two weeks wasn’t enough time but it was the the perfect way to frame my writing routine as part of an artist community. It was March and still snowy then. I could see outside my studio window and take writing breaks. I could lay on the floor and stare at the ceiling. I had to learn that was okay for me.
Eventually, when I started my Ph.D. in Denton, Texas, Aura Coffee and the occasional bar that served kombucha and coffee on tap would become my offices. I was fortunate to have the support of funding my program and an editorial fellowship that provided me with the time and space to write. I don’t think if I chose to make it in the private sector I’d have the same opportunities to pay attention to myself and my work and I feel lucky for it.
I’ve also benefited from having a partner at times and family and therapy to place me in a much better mental space to write and challenge the questions I found myself asking.
When I was finishing the book, I was also at the University of Texas at Austin’s Dobie Paisano Fellowship program, where I spent four months and some change on 250 acres learning how to establish a writing routine after the Ph.D. During the pandemic, this work became an environmental reckoning for my writing process, mental state, and the questions that would help bring me to my next book. I like this question because environmental factors for me are not just physical spaces, but also small rituals that we give ourselves and also can gesture towards saying something about our positionality. My parents immigrated here to provide better opportunities for me and I must acknowledge that I’ve likely benefited from being a man and white-passing (or as one person has put it, ambiguous ethnic), which is something I’ve been thinking about with my recent project.
What was your writing process? Your editing process? Did you adopt a unique process for this book, or do you have a “go-to” approach for all your writing? How did writing this book transform you? The earliest poem dates from nearly twelve years ago. But I’ve been writing since high school and I had no patience for much revision early on. Workshops in undergrad and grad school definitely helped me pay attention to patterning elements in my poems, but I was very slow to revise the book or even treat the poems as a book for a long time.
I remember receiving the advice that I shouldn’t rush a book during the MFA. It’s better to wait for the poems to come and see what you have after writing them. In New York, I felt that pressure. Everyone seemed to have a book or be publishing a book. I had to learn to follow the language and give myself permission to become obsessed with a subject.
When I started to search for my obsessions, my poems were more successful at being placed for publication. I wrote and revised poems based on submission deadlines or whenever I was invited to readings or participated in open mikes.
I became part of the Spiderweb Salon, an arts collective in Denton and I learned to collaborate and open myself up to writing that wasn’t so academic. I gave myself permission to become more experimental. Through the collective, I had the opportunity to participate in projects that stretched my imagination.
I also attended workshops at Sewanee and Bread Loaf and met with other poets as an editor which helped me think about new ways of looking at my poems. From these friendships, I frequently found myself in 30/30 challenges. Focusing my practice and learning my obsessions helped me focus on the subject of my manuscript. It actually took me a long time to find a way to write about my family and share the vulnerable voice of the poems.
While I don’t write every day, I found the challenge of 30 poems in 30 days useful and for the past few years, these 30/30 challenges have given me more and more poems that are not so terrible. I’m pretty flexible about the rules, but I frequently ask friends to join me in accountability groups and will now take on 30/30 challenges sometimes more than a few times a year.
It helps when you have a book project and a deadline. Mine was defending for my dissertation defense for my Ph.D. and submitting to book contests. I finally had enough pages of material when I reached this stage and started to find the shape of my manuscript. One of my mentors, Jehanne Dubrow, recommended I try to use two sections for the book. Because I started to treat the family poems, wherein, memories were portraits, I used that to frame the first section “Portrait of Us” as a title. The second section is titled, “Burning.” Together the first section establishes the sense of family trying to hold it together with their dreams and ambitions. The second section starts to ache and burn and complicate that struggle. Because it relies on semi-autobiographical material, I also decided to use creative nonfiction techniques and speculative, surreal fiction to inform how these portraits have “memory gaps.” Some of the poems also comment on the unreliable narratives that come from remembering complicated childhoods. Some of the poems like “Footage of Me Tomorrow” use erasure to more explicitly play out these memory gaps, but the poems also comment on these shifts in memory like “Portrait of a Reunion” in the first half and “Portrait of the Unsaid.”
Ultimately, I consider my writing process as an evolving one, but I like to frequently challenge how I’m writing my poems and I’ve come to appreciate the active cultivation of writing as a ritual for myself to process the world and make myself think harder by asking myself to pay attention to what I’m seeing and understanding.
Did another artform influence this work? Painting, music, dancing, etc. Portraits are an obvious influence. I mentioned a little about this when discussing the editing process, but once I found the obsession or framing for the book, I leaned into it. Thankfully, I had poems and memories to latch onto. I mainly wanted to reference Mexican painters and artists. I started with Diego Rivera because my family had this print of his in our kitchen growing up. I remember really admiring ekphrastic poems a lot, but I find myself gravitating towards cinema and borrowing visual elements and breaks in my own work. I also expanded ekphrasis to include film and have some poems that are in conversation with The Lion King and Paris, Texas. I also mention Norman Rockwell as a contrast to the Mexican artists.
For this reason, I considered how memory could be unreliable and I used erasures on my own poems to gesture or hint at this idea.
I was lucky to have “After El Hombre"by Rufino Tamayo" on display at the Dallas Museum of Art for an exhibit I did with the Spiderweb Salon collective. We had a huge group of participants find art in the museum and write poems inspired by the artwork. We recorded them and had them on display for a month and attendees could dial our poem in a special rotary phone that we pre-programmed with a number that corresponded with our selected artwork. People could then listen to the audio recording. I challenged myself to see if I could use these ekphrastic poems to comment on the art but also have them converse with my own questions and way of seeing the world. What role does the poet play in the 21st century? The poet will remain important because language is important. I believe in the power of poetry to give voice and names to things that we find hard to say. Others may see poetry as a hard space to enter because it seems lofty or inaccessible or it’s siloed inside institutions.
But I’m glad for any space that gives people an opportunity to share their voice or say something they didn’t know they could. I understand why people may feel that poetry doesn’t have the power to save democracy or stop wars, but teaching poetry has a lot of power. Poetry is our oldest form of storytelling and I believe people need to feel empowered to speak out for themselves or for those who cannot. I find Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” a text that my students readily connect with. Recent data shows that more people are actually reading poetry these days. In the U.S. we have more MFA programs, writers in the schools, and more magazines and presses than ever before. Art becomes harder every year because poets continue to raise the bar with what language can do.
I wouldn’t say it’s important to read every poet who’s writing today, but I believe it’s important to pay attention to the world and to continue to find ways to articulate what that world looks like. We have more writers than ever and sometimes they need to say something familiar, but I always ask myself and my students, how can I say this like only I could say it, right now?
Sometimes that means retelling the same stories or the same feelings that people always have about the world. The world is overwhelming because of how much information is out there and poets are trying to make sense of that information like they always have and they want to speak for themselves and their communities. I believe anyone thinking about the urgency to say something meaningful about their people or their community has the spirit of a poet. As a poet, I’ve chosen the medium of language to say something about my world.
My book comes from that thinking and the questions I ask come from thinking about what it means to live in the 21st century in America. I’ve carried those questions into my writing life too.
You can often tell a lot about a book by how it begins and how it ends. What is the first line and last line of your book?
“We lend each other tools. We learned the American tongue.” and “What if / I’m like him? Lighting the last of a cigarette—becoming night.”
Community and friendship are sustaining factors for many writers. Give a shoutout to some of the folks who have held and supported you in your writing life.
I’m very grateful to friends like Anthony Cody, who have been supportive from the beginning and rooting me on. I’m grateful to Diana Khoi Nguyen who has been very supportive and inspiring through her own work. I’m grateful to my friend courtney marie for inviting me many times to participate in Spiderweb Salon events. Ángel García, Sara Borjas, Eduardo Corral, Greg Brownderville, Mike Soto, Dorothy Chan, and many others have been people who have supported me through their work and feedback. Many more are listed on my acknowledgments page. I’m grateful to have met them in the community and to continue to be in the community with them. I’m a big believer in the writing community. For me, writing is a social practice. Whether I’m reading other authors or wanting to say something about the world, I want to feel like I’m having a conversation with the world. Reading these poets and having conversations with them about their work has been sustaining. I’m very glad I’ve decided to edit a magazine and start a reading series because they’ve kept me in the community even without a writing program. I’m a big fan of the poets I get to publish or invite to participate in events. While my roles may seem like they hold power, I believe anyone can start a magazine or series and I always hope some of my students will invent their own scene or community!
Do you have a new project that you’re working on? Could you tell us a bit about it?
My new project is searching for a title and has had a few. I won’t share it here, but it does follow a character I’ve named the Tejano. I’ve written over 100 pages of poems and drafts. Some of them are published and others are always being revised. It’s a love story for the end of times and it explores the history of Texas by way of speculative literature. I’m re-writing Texas folktales and considering the mythologizing that happens when it comes to the history of Texas and Mexico. There’s a love story, creation stories, apocalyptic stories, and stories about identity.
My family didn’t share a lot of stories growing up. I had to dig for them. My first book came from asking about these origin stories. My project expands on those questions by going beyond my own personal history and asking about the stories we tell. Right now, it’s finding its shape. But I’m expanding the speculative portions by writing about cowboys and Mars and outer space.
Sebastián H. Páramo is the author of Portrait of Us Burning (Northwestern University Press/Curbstone Books, 2023). His poems have recently appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Poetry Northwest, The Arkansas International, Prairie Schooner, the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-A-Day series, and elsewhere. Sebastián received his MFA in poetry from Sarah Lawrence College and a Ph.D. in English and Creative Writing from the University of North Texas. He is the founding editor of The Boiler, Poetry Editor for Deep Vellum, and a Visiting Assistant
Professor of English at Austin College in Sherman, Texas.
Photo credit: Paxton Maroney