Interview with jo reyes-boitel on the matchstick litanies
Next Page Press | November 2023 | pp. 73 |
Laura Villareal (LV): the matchstick litanies is propulsive and heart-wrenching, but also brimming with unexpected moments of revelation. The book grapples with difficult topics like domestic violence, sexual assault, military-related PTSD, alcoholism, drug abuse. Though these are challenging to write about, your poems radiate with something I struggle to name, perhaps I’d call it emotional clarity. It seems to me that these poems were very tough to write; that every poem required sincere and patient resolution on your part as the poet to not over poeticize. There’s a balance between lyric and straightforward language that is startling. So, I wonder, how did you approach the writing of this book? What acts of care did you incorporate into your practice in the difficult writing of these poems?
jo reyes-boitel (jr-b): Hi Laura. Thanks so much for taking time to read my work and complete this interview. This was difficult writing to manage. It took me longer than previous writings have, and I had to trust what I was trying for. That meant that I approached each poem differently. Often the hardest part was just to write the event, which was enough difficulty. Self-care while writing meant allowing myself time away from the text. It meant recalling good memories that occurred around the same time as some of the incidents mentioned in the book. Sometimes it meant leaving the manuscript’s world entirely and sitting with a friend and talking over coffee or it meant taking a long drive to some water or a park or bookstore.
LV: I'm glad to hear about the ways you balanced writing with acts of care. In your book, there’s an also an empathetic depth which resolves to convey the humanity of perpetrators of violence while at once reckoning with the violence. Not easy to do. I hope you don’t mind me quoting your email announcement about the book, but in it you said something I want to hear more about, you wrote:
“It's easy to label someone "bad" if they were the abuser and to label someone ‘good’ or ‘resilient’ for taking that abuse and not dying. I had the incredible pleasure of interviewing Myriam Gurba recently for my school and a student asked her how she found ways to write about those who had done such terrible things like murder and sexual violence. She said she imagines them as children. To return them to a place where they weren't yet what they had become. My eyes lit up because, in working on this book, this same idea had become a breakthrough moment for me. My goal in this work was to show what can happen when there is a confluence of hurt individuals connecting through that hurt and creating a family in hope of something better emotionally, financially, psychologically.”
Did you know you wanted to approach the writing in this way or was it something that you arrived at after many drafts?
jr-b: Many, many drafts! Sometimes I had to recount the event. Sometimes I focused on the beauty of some related image within an episode. Sometimes I just had to remember the girl I was at the time and recall what she thought, felt. It’s a conjuring rooted in trying to be loving, aiming for something close to honesty. These are people I love and I didn’t want to spend a life with only upset and distance from them. They are a part of me and I wanted to know what in their life had made the person I grew up with. At first, I was intent on writing the pieces with myself as the central witness. But this leaves me as a kind of judge, which I wasn’t comfortable doing, especially since, just like them, I was affected and trying to feel whole. I couldn’t treat this like docupoetics. In the case of my brother, who was younger than I was but who saw some of what I did, I could see his struggle with what he witnessed and with expectations of masculinity. Despite what I experienced I think his position here was even more tenuous and I wanted to be sure I gave space for that.
LV: The epigraph to the matchstick litanies says, “I wrote this book for the twelve-year-old girl I was.” You have a series of poems “epicenter: 9,” “epicenter: 12,” “epicenter: 14.” I read the numbers of each as pivotal ages of the speaker. Are there more of these “epicenter” poems? Did you keep these younger versions of yourself in your mind as you wrote? Did you have hopes for what the book would accomplish for them?
jr-b: I think we all have moments of intensity or awe that could mark each year of our life. I took the opportunity of the epicenter poems to signal a shift in perspective or behavior.
I don’t know what I thought about the book’s purpose or meaning for the younger me, not while I was first writing it. But I felt compelled to write it just the same. It was only later that I could see the benefit of the writing toward my own healing. While writing alone doesn’t heal to the degree we may need it can certainly help. Part of me was hoping for that. Part of me was hoping the work would connect with others who have experienced similar so the loneliness of these experiences would diminish. So often these kinds of stories are understood as happening but are not chronicled. I wrote this, not to stay in trauma but to acknowledge and find a way toward my life after.
LV: As I was reading your book, I was reminded of books by other Latinx writers like Natalie Diaz’s When My Brother was an Aztec and Gabrielle R. Tallmadge’s Sweet Beast through your handling of the family narrative. What books and/or poets do you feel are in conversation with your book?
jr-b: I had Natalie Diaz’ book in my mind in much of the initial writing for this book. It can’t be helped. That book did an amazing job of showing community and family and the brother while they struggled. I also returned to Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony when I thought of the pieces about my father, and Virgil Suarez’ work when I thought of ways migrating folks acclimate, especially with difficulties navigating American culture. I also worked to find myself in this book, to find a way to state I was present when, for much of my youth I felt acted up but rarely had moments where I felt empowered. So, I’m not sure that I’m in conversation with the work of Gloria Anzaldúa and Virginia Grise, for the centering of the individual voice and its resonating out to community; to Margo Tamez and Vievee Francis, for the insistence of voice and the reminder that activism begins with deliberate and careful questioning and critiquing; for Gustavo Hernandez and César L. De León, for their approach to family; and for Emmy Pérez, and Allison Adele Hedge Coke, for recognizing the beautiful and the insistent and the natural world even within painful retellings. I’m not sure I’m in conversation with them but they have spoken to me and I am indebted to each for their incredible example.
LV: Writing about family can be fraught. You’ve done a beautiful job of providing a well-rounded view of your family members that captures their best qualities as well as their personal struggles. Was it difficult to write about your family members? Do they know you’ve written about them?
jr-b: To some degree, they already know I’m a writer and that family is an inevitable subject for most writers. My mother has heard me read work around family but not necessarily pieces from this book. We always had a careful distance in this regard. That is, until the first week of my readings, where I gave her an advance copy and told her about the book and what my goals were. My father is in long-term hospice care and isn’t aware of much now. My daughter asks about my writing and about this book specifically so I sent her the document itself. Now that she is older our conversations are very much about looking at the totality of a person – or, as much as is possible – and so, in a sense, we are teaching each other how to look at ourselves and those around us with gentleness. I’m incredibly thankful for this and for her.
LV: My impulse is to read the title of your book, the matchstick litanies, through a religious lens. If I recall correctly, litanies are call and response in nature— a combination of invocations and petitions. Litanies also require repetition and rhythm which I feel is captured in your book through imagery. But, of course, a litany is also just a list. Could you tell us more about the title?
jr-b: I fell in love with the word litany and kept returning to it when I debated what to call this book. Origins of the word mean prayer but also mean supplication and I wanted to recognize the element of call and response to this kind of work. I then found torrin a. greathouse’s poem “Litany of Ordinary Violences” and thought of moments when I felt overwhelmed and how all the terror of my past would seem to come up all together and all at once. It could immobilize me and only by speaking them could they be diffused. That kind of insistence is, for me, a prayer. We can’t ask for help until we can say what we are holding on to and what we need help with. And matchsticks were a descriptor I used in the book for the houses in my neighborhood, which were meant as temporary housing for military families, built quickly, close together, and easily flammable.
LV: Each section of the book begins with a poem titled “the house next door is in flames” which talk about a literal house in flames, but also, the metaphorical house in flames that the speaker inhabits. I enjoyed the way this series ties the book together. Did “the house next door is in flames” poems already exist as titled when you were putting the manuscript together or was they added as a way to shape the manuscript as a whole? What guided your process in sequencing the poems in the book?
jr-b: I fell into typical ways of considering poem order: chronologically. But, this book has been about trusting myself and what I needed to say. That showed up in the ordering of the poems too. I had much of the manuscript ready when, over the Christmas holiday while visiting my mother, the neighbor’s house was set on fire. Thankfully no one was in the property and, while there was some damage to my parents’ house, we were fortunate police got to the house and woke us up even before fire trucks had arrived. The cover photo is late in the fire. We were told to stand outside, away from the house. There was still concern our house would be eaten up. I stood there, shocked, and instantly remembered the incident of more than 20 years before, when my brother shot at my father. That moment, where I could see past and present at once, was challenging but it’s often this way, where something in our present reminds us of a past experience. I let poems speak to each other based on their energy or contradictory idea with the poems before and after them.
I wrote the house fire poems as a way of processing. For almost a year hearing firetrucks at night would result in days of insomnia. About two weeks after this fire an RV behind my apartment in McAllen, TX went up in flames. That didn’t help! But free writing did. And with it memories about other actual fires in the house (some not recounted here) and about the threat of destruction too. It’s in sections because we work through trauma in pieces, not all at once.
LV: Oh wow, that must have been difficult! Thank you for telling me more about how those poems came to be. I found myself continually drawn to them because of their energy.
As poet living in Texas, the references to the state resonated with me, especially “Central Texas an endurance, like bitter oranges.” Texas is more of a character than a setting in my writing. What role does Texas play in your poems?
jr-b: I spent so much of my time seeing Texas as a placeholder that, to feel as though I was from here came on to me slowly. Texas bewitched me in a way. It’s hard here because it’s the place where so much of my upbringing took place. And it’s also a place my father brought the family to separate my mother from her family in Florida. And the politics and trying to live here are increasingly difficult for women, for queer and trans people, for migrants, for the poor, for people of color. But the land has its own story. I tried to reach for that in my work. In a sense, Texas for me is an entity I spent a lifetime thinking was monstrous in size and appetite. I thought it worked to actively destroy people and families – not just mine but communities of Chicanx, of indigenous, of migrants. But I’ve since discovered there’s a wonderful culture here that is rooted in rebellion and in hospitality too. Most of my writing then is about staying open to the complexity and beauty of this unique place.
LV: I feel all of that too. I appreciate how you've articulate the complexity of living here.
In “friendly fire,” the fragmentation of the lines using visual caesura/blank space suspends the narrative in such an effective way. I didn’t expect myself to get choked up, but I have to admit by the time I ended the poem, the momentum got caught in my throat. This is true throughout your book. I couldn’t anticipate how you’d end a poem. Do you have any advice on writing endings?
jr-b: Thank you for saying that. “friendly fire” went through several drafts. It never felt complete and, even in the version in the book, I found my use of spacing was so that I could have small breaks to breathe. I also wanted to give some pacing to the reader that helps direct how it would be read.
Regarding endings, so often young poets try to neatly close a poem but I think of Gregory Orr and how he revisits the terrible death of his brother. No one poem can tell an entire story. We may revisit moments within a story and, through a lifetime, create much of that one story. Time, distance, and circumstance help us to reframe the story we want to tell. Once I realized I didn’t have to force a poem to tell everything, and once I realized many of our actual experiences don’t have clear endings, I felt free to close a piece on a breath or during a silence or even when I thought I couldn’t say anything else without being overworked emotionally. If we can free ourselves of that impulse to close things neatly we aren’t struggling with verb tenses or shifts in chronology, and we are instead crafting embodied narrative that centers experience and emotion.
jo reyes-boitel is a poet, playwright, and scholar, queer mixed Latinx, and parent now working on their MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley, where they also serve as a teaching assistant. Their publications include Michael + Josephine (FlowerSong Press, 2019) and the chapbook mouth (Neon Hemlock, 2021). Their next book of poetry, centered on their upbringing, is forthcoming from Next Page Press in November 2023.
Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She earned her MFA at Rutgers University—Newark and has been awarded fellowships and scholarships from the Stadler Center for Poetry and Literary Arts, National Book Critics Circle’s Emerging Critics Program, Bread Loaf Writers' Conference, and the Dobie Paisano Fellowship Program at University of Texas-Austin. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, AGNI, The American Poetry Review, and elsewhere.