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  • Laura Villareal

"darkness emphasizes everything in the light": An interview with Joshua Garcia on Pentimento

Pub date: March 2024 | Black Lawrence Press

ISBN: 9781625570673 | pp. 80

[A note: The images woven among this interview are from Joshua Garcia's poem "Faggot."]


Laura Villareal (LV): Perhaps we should begin with some context for how we know each other? In 2020-2021 I was a Stadler Fellow, part of the fellowship allowed me to be an Associate Editor of West Branch where I was given the opportunity to curate a folio. I chose the topic Document(s) and put out a call, which you answered. I still remember the first time I read your poetry! I was immediately blown away by your skillful and lyrical craft! You sent “Faggot” which is a gorgeously long poem (about 13 pages) that includes pictures of your body overlayed with Biblical verses. In a fantastic turn of events, not only had I selected your work, but the selection committee for the Stadler Fellowship had also selected you for the fellowship the following year. Needless to say, I have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of your debut collection since then. Did your time as a Stadler Fellow influence the making of this book in any way? 


Joshua Garcia (JG): Laura, I’m so grateful for the chance to talk with you about this book. First let me say that working with you on your Document(s) folio was one of the best publication experiences I’ve had. Your editorial attention to “Faggot” helped it become a stronger poem, and I’m grateful for the ways we’ve continued to connect via writing and the Stadler Fellowship since.  


My time as a Stadler Fellow absolutely influenced the book. When I began the fellowship, I thought I had a completed draft of Pentimento, and I mostly put it aside to begin working on a new manuscript. But I kept returning to it and ended up writing five or six new poems that are included in the book, like “Jerry,” which feels pivotal to me and which was inspired by a painting at Bucknell’s Samek Art Museum. Inspiration also came from the location, the poems I was reading for Stadler Center programming, the relationships I made and the conversations I was having. Also really important was the time and perspective the fellowship provided. By the spring, I returned to the manuscript and completely reordered it with some old poems I realized were essential and without some newer poems I decided weren’t necessary. The fellowship was a gift. I had the time, space, and quiet I needed. I felt like a little monk devoted to my vocation.


LV: Pentimento is richly layered in the topics that it explores—religion, queerness, the body, and art. I feel as though you’d returned the pastoral to its natural state of queerness and expanded my understanding of art. Like your book’s name Pentimento suggests, your poems frequently return to the painting under the painting or rather the poem under the poem—perhaps the closest literary description is palimpsest? They tend to have moments where that poetic underpainting is revealed—sometimes briefly, other times completely. Were you actively writing with that intention or was there a point where you realized what your poems were doing?


JG: I think a little bit of both. There were moments I was consciously working toward that layering, but I didn’t realized how it was holistically taking shape until later. As you mention, “Faggot” includes photos of my body overlayed with bible verses (the “clobber passages”). It was important to me as I was creating that piece that the text be transparent over the images so the verses almost seemed a part of the body. But of course they’re not––they’re imposed. So then how do we unravel the two? In other ways, it was more of a surprise. When I started writing the earliest poems in the collection, I was navigating my queerness as a devout Christian. My faith fell apart along the way, and I began navigating my former Christian faith as a queer person. A shift in perspective, I guess. Instead of an unraveling, a kind of revision.


I do remember when I recognized how deeply this “pentimento” or “palimpsest” was taking shape. I was at a residency, scanning the manuscript for a word or an idea that could be a title. Then I saw the word “pentimento” in my poem “Salvator Mundi.” I went back through the manuscript to make sure it made sense as a title. I kept writing “pentimento,” “pentimento” in the margins where it was taking place—that simultaneous looking backward and forward—and it was everywhere.


LV: We’re in a wonderful moment where many poets are including visuals such as family photographs, self-portraits, medical scans, collages, etc… in their books. My first introduction to your work was a poem that included photos, so in my mind your work with poems and photography is inextricable. Which came first for you as an artist: poetry or photography? Did you always know you’d include photographs in your book?



JG: I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, but I was actually a photographer before I developed any kind of recognizable writing practice. I’m sure there’s a visual sensibility that carries over, either through the incorporation of photography into my poems or simply turning to visual art for inspiration. Of course there are plenty of great examples of photography and poetry coming together (Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Diana Khoi Nguyen’s Ghost Of come to mind), but I actually think the incorporation of text in the work of artists like Carrie Mae Weems, John Baldessari, and Hal Fisher were my primary influences. I didn’t start out with the intention to incorporate photography as much as the photography was simply a part of the work. With both “Faggot” and the “Self-Portrait as Archetypical Media Image” poems, the photos arose out of the writing process. I was thinking a lot about bodily autonomy and reading The Body Keeps the Score at the time, if that tells you anything, and photography felt like a more physical way of exploring what I was trying to say. It was also incredibly liberating. I was terrified of my body for a long time—was conditioned to be—and photography was one way I knew how to reclaim it as mine.  



LV: I noticed that “light” and “dark”/ “darkness” are motifs in your work. Of course, “light” and “dark” have strong biblical ties, but chiaroscuro also came to mind as I was reading your book. The way you write about light and dark felt intentional and painterly. In one poem you describe the light as “swelling” and in another “contracting.” You also describe dark as “the power of the dark galloping in” and “tired darkness.” One example, I especially liked was in your poem “Self-Portrait as Archetypal Media Image: Leather”: “not quite iridescent but like a darkness // flashing—for the dark, like light, / can be a kind of brightness too—." Here it seems that the speaker is considering that light and dark are two sides of the same coin. Your writing is acutely perceptive of an image’s shadow and the texture of light around it. It feels rooted in art. Do you contribute your approach to light and dark to your work as a photographer or is it your love of art? Perhaps both?



JG: You’re right that, for me at least, light and darkness held some kind of biblical values or ideas as I was writing. In this sense, I explore light and dark thematically through my experience in the church. But I also think you’re right pointing out that light and dark are important elements in art. I’ve certainly thought about this in my photography. They’re tools of equal value that, when used together, create depth, feeling, texture, sensation. It’s what makes Caravaggio’s paintings so stunning and intense. Wolfgang Tillmans’ photograph blood dancer comes to mind. The subject’s torso is illuminated by a flash, and his body is entirely surrounded by darkness. The darkness emphasizes everything in the light—his sweat and blood, his physique, the absolute joy on his face. In this sense, “darkness” is illuminating, too, and doesn’t carry a moralistic value. And maybe on a figurative level, Pentimento is largely about realizing this.



LV: In recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to poets who are writing about and reckoning with religion. Books like Headless John the Baptist Hitchhiking by C.T. Salazar and Divination with a Human Heart Attached by Emily Stoddard to name a couple. For people who grew up in a religion or faith practice, it feels like a lifelong task to untangle ourselves from guilt or condemnation derived from the bigoted aspects of religion if we want to continue connecting with god. The language of religion feels like something that has a tendency to arise no matter how long a poet has departed from the practice. I know this may be hard to predict, but do you think the language of religion will remain in your work as you move forward? What’s fueling your poems and filling your lyrical landscape these days?


JG: That’s a really interesting question and something I’ve been wondering about myself. When I was finishing Pentimento, I knew I wanted to explore something else. I really grieved my faith and what it meant to me—I sometimes still do—and it was difficult to keep returning to it in poems. That said, the manuscript I’m currently working on now mostly explores sex and relationships, and it would be impossible to separate my experience of that from my experience in the church. It shaped my relationship to my body and myself, so of course it’s connected. I’m trying not to use any explicitly religious references, but themes sneak their way in through ideas of bodily autonomy and intimacy after trauma. The idea of prayer keeps showing up as an outward expression of desire. Where does it all go if it’s unfulfilled or unreciprocated? There’s an energy, a longing that gets put out into the universe somehow.


I’m also working on a project exploring the paintings of Philip Pearlstein. I started feeling a kind of emptiness or nothingness, and I thought the poems would reflect that. I expected them to be really godless, but images of the body as a cathedral keep coming up, and I can’t help it. A cathedral to what? I don’t know. People turn to religion and poetry for similar reasons, and I think those themes and images might always be a part of my language the way art will always be a part of my language.



LV: In your poem “Epistle (Deluge),” you write: “I have been asking myself // whether I still believe in God, and though I don’t have an answer, / I remember the moment the question first formed, sounding // inside me like a firework cracking in the distance, opening like a pocket of air / rising to the water’s surface to meet more of itself.” There are many other moments like this in your book where the speaker is trying to hold both their queerness and faith at once. You moderated a wonderfully affirming conversation between Carl Phillips and Spencer Reece through the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts about spirituality and queerness last spring. If I recall correctly, the consensus was that poetry can be a type of prayer or practice in spirituality. Did writing this book allow you to gain any clarity on the coexistence of queerness and faith in your life?  



JG: As I shared earlier, my perspective on my faith and queerness shifted as I was writing this book. I’m not sure if writing these poems provided clarity or if they are the result of clarity that came with my experience. I do think queerness and faith can coexist. The bigger question, for me at least, is what does faith then look like?


I’m glad you found the conversation between Phillips and Reece affirming. I was excited to have them talk about queerness and faith because they’re seemingly opposites (Reece is a priest and Phillips a self-described heathen). Their conclusion that poetry is a kind of prayer is one that has been a comfort to me. Prayer is maybe what I miss most about my faith. I used to pray all the time. All day during whatever I was doing. It’s how I would process whatever I was going through, and I felt like I wasn’t alone, like someone was listening. I don’t feel that way now, and it’s hard for me to pray in the same way. But writing poems is pretty close. Like desire reaching out of the self, writing a poem is like seeking a body for something that’s otherwise intangible. I just read the afterward to Henri Cole’s Gravity and Center. He writes that sonnets free him “to have aesthetic power while writing about the tragic situation of the individual in the world.” Like wow. I remember hearing somewhere that prayer doesn’t change things, prayer changes us so that we can change things. In this sense, Cole is talking about sonnets as a kind of prayer. To take what we’ve been given, this “tragic situation,” and care for it, pay attention to it, shape it in a way that makes the poem—and the source of the poem—beautiful. 



LV: Pentimento ends with a moving homage to friendship and queerness. The arc of the manuscript has a push-pull sensation as the speaker navigates queerness, faith, and memory which is why I find this final declaration and celebration so satisfying. What was your process for ordering the manuscript?



JG: I spent plenty of nights ordering the book at the Stadler Center. I’d lay out the manuscript page-by-page down the long hallway, and I’d move the pages around like puzzle pieces. It was a mostly intuitive process. The emotional arc of the book is similar to the spiritual-emotional arc I underwent as I was writing it. It’s not ordered in a chronological sense though. That push and pull between faith and doubt is on a kind of loop that narrows in on the final poem about queer friendship. That poem is about the queer people who taught me to believe in myself when I didn’t know what to believe in, and for me that’s what this book is ultimately about. That’s the note I wanted it to end on. Writing the poems, living them, wasn’t always easy. It was actually really fucking hard. If the book didn’t end as a celebration of queerness, what would it all have been for?


Joshua Garcia's debut collection, Pentimento, is forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press (March 2024). His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in Ecotone, The Georgia Review, Passages North, Ploughshares, and elsewhere. He holds an MFA from the College of Charleston and has received a Stadler Fellowship from Bucknell University and an Emerge—Surface—Be Fellowship from The Poetry Project. He lives and writes in Brooklyn, New York.

Photo: Julia Hembree Smith






Laura Villareal is a poet and book critic. Her debut poetry collection, Girl’s Guide to Leaving, (University of Wisconsin Press 2022) was awarded Texas Institute of Letters' John A. Robert Johnson Award for a First Book of Poetry and the Writers' League of Texas Book Award for Poetry. Her writing has appeared in Shenandoah, Guernica, AGNI, among others.


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