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  • Laura Villareal

"poetry can be healing, but it’s not medicine...poetry can be archival, but it’s not memoir": An Interview with Brent Ameneyro on A Face Out of Clay

Buy: A Face Out of Clay by Brent Ameneyro | $16.95 | ISBN: 978-1-885635-89-1 | June 2024


Laura Villareal (LV): I don’t think people know this, but since we work together part-time virtually, we don’t have the opportunity to have a lot of organic conversations about life that would typically arise in a workplace. My hope for this interview is that through my questions our readers and I can get to know you. 

Your chapbook Puebla (Ghost City Press) focuses on your life in Puebla, Mexico as a kid, some of those poems are in A Face Out of Clay. You’re originally from Sacramento if I remember correctly. How did your family end up in Puebla? How long did you live there? 

Brent Ameneyro (BA): I love your approach to this conversation. It’s like we’re sitting at a coffee shop hanging out, deepening our friendship. Thank you for this. 

When my dad moved from Mexico to the U.S. back in the 70s, he did what a lot of immigrants did back then: pursue the abstract American dream. For him, that included going to college, changing his name, and working jobs unrelated to his schooling because nobody would hire a dark-skinned man with a strong accent. He went from truck driver to almond factory bagger to server in a restaurant, taking whatever job would pay the most regardless of the amount of work. And by the 80s, he did achieve the dream in many ways; beautiful family, single family home, new truck, even a boat.

In the early 90s, my family moved to Mexico from California so my dad could get out of the labor grind. He had the opportunity to run the English department at a K-12 private school in Puebla. He would go from wearing aprons with salsa stains to suits with ties and polished shoes. Ironic how the country he left for better opportunities would become the place with better opportunities. But the early 90s were a precarious time for Mexico. By the mid-90s—after a devastating earthquake, the eruption of a dormant volcano, political assassinations, cartel uprising, and financial crisis—poet Homero Aridjis said, "The Virgin of Guadalupe has abandoned Mexico.” What might be the most tumultuous years of Mexico’s modern history happened to also be the years that my family lived there. After two years, we moved back to Sacramento, just in time for me to start fifth grade. 

LV: Does your family read your poetry? Have they seen you read before?

BA: Yes, my family reads my poetry, and my parents have seen me read before. I used to be nervous about my family reading my poetry. I was worried they would hold my work up to the light for historical accuracy, that they might not understand how poetry (at least my poetry) is not concerned with accuracy. I was also worried about being vulnerable and showing them the often strange ways I think and feel. But they are all very supportive. My brother Kent is also an artist. Together, we’ve been able to carve out an artistic niche within our family.

LV: Many of the poems in A Face Out of Clay are about childhood, memory, and family. Poetry is a great vehicle to address the fallibility of memory. What was your approach to writing about memories?

BA: When I was writing the poems for A Face Out of Clay, I was at a point in my life where I was getting out of the hurried initial decade of adulthood. It was a time for reflection, so naturally my writing leaned in that direction as well. I had also been writing poetry long enough to recognize a few truths about the art form: poetry can be therapeutic, but it’s not therapy; poetry can be healing, but it’s not medicine; poetry can be nourishing, but it’s not food; poetry can be archival, but it’s not memoir. Maybe these are subjective truths, but I feel it’s important to articulate distinctions between poetry and other aspects of the human experience. Poetry can feel all-encompassing, and in many ways it is, but placing some parameters on my approach to the art form helped me to navigate writing about memories.

LV: You earned your MFA from SDSU in 2022, but where does your story as a writer begin? How long had you been writing before the MFA and how long did it take to write A Face Out of Clay?

BA: There are two beginnings, depending on how you’d like me to answer the question. One way to answer the question is that I have been writing as long as I can remember. I went from making my own little stapled together crayon colored books as a child to writing song lyrics as a teenager. Another way to answer the question is that I knew very little about literature and writing, truly, until around 2007 when I started studying poetry at California State University, Sacramento. Through this lens, my journey as a writer began around 2006 after taking a few literature courses at community college. When I see high school students today writing beautiful poetry and undergrads publishing, I feel that I started late and I started slow, and I’m perfectly fine with that. If I’m being fair with myself, music was also my primary art form until around 2016. It was around that time that I started writing poetry more intentionally and reading at open mics. That year I had a poetry installation in a large-scale, temporary art exhibition in Sacramento called Art Hotel. Alongside nearly 100 artists, we transformed the soon-to-be-demolished Jade Apartments in downtown Sacramento into an immersive art experience. I filled an entire room with my writing. I put poetry on the walls and windows, in the sinks and cabinets, and in mason jars on shelves. I used spray paint and stencils, markers, stickers, typewriters, and paint pens to place poetry throughout the room. I look back at the Art Hotel experience fondly as it marks a turning point in my writing career. This was my first major writing project where thousands of people saw my poetry and responded positively to it. When I started my MFA in 2019, I had been writing about my childhood in Mexico for about a year already. Very little of that early writing actually made it into A Face Out of Clay, but I’d say I entered the creative space for the collection around 2018. 

LV: What’s your poetic lineage? Who were some of your early influences and who are some of your current influences? 

BA: Early, early influences would be William Blake and the Romantic poets, but that was around the 2007 time period when I was first being exposed to literature and literary history. True writing influences that shaped my writing (probably more like 2008-2016) would be William Carlos Williams, Pablo Neruda, and Federico García Lorca. I found myself returning to Williams for lessons in constraint and the image, Neruda for passion and political writing, and Lorca for surreal and lyric poetry. I’m sure you can see the poems in A Face Out of Clay clearly within this poetic lineage. There is also a strong W.S Merwin chapter in the story of my influences.I’ll answer the question on current influences in two parts. First, the current living poets whose work I admire, and second, the poets currently on my desk that are calling me back to their pages. I feel very fortunate to have received blurbs from some of my favorite living poets: John Murillo, Eduardo C. Corral, Felicia Zamora, and Francisco Aragón. Other living poets whose work I admire include Edward Hirsch, Alberto Ríos, Juan Felipe Herrera, Marie Howe, Blas Falconer, Diane Seuss, Ilya Kaminsky, Anne Carson, Maggie Nelson, and Carl Phillips, to name a few. Currently on my desk whose work I admire and I find myself returning to over the past few months would be Jean Valentine and Rigoberto González. I also enjoy reading emerging poets and all things new and exciting. 

LV: In addition to being a writer, you’re also a musician. There’s a sense of both artistic practices that occurs in “Movement Manifesto”—the way you’re scoring the poem via interspersed monostitch lines that name things like “[improvised guitar over a computer-generated rhythm]” and “[arpeggio adagio],” and “[ghost notes].” Is your approach to music and writing similar or different from one another? What came first: writing or music? For you, does one medium inform the other?

BA: As a child, writing came first. As a practice, music came first. I learned how to be an artist through music. My brother and I started performing music live around 2000. At first, the music we made contained traditional structure, lyrics, rhythms, and so on. Eventually we played less with other musicians in bands. We built a home studio in his house and spent many long nights learning how to harness creative energy. I’d say from around 2006 to 2016 we used music as a way to explore the practice of being an artist. We became less concerned with “songs'' and more interested in improvisation. Not to get lost in woo-woo here, but the best way I can describe it is that we cultivated a space to channel a divine spark, then we used that spark to start an art fire. 

When I write, I aspire to enter that same space that I learned through music, to channel that same energy, and to create with that same absence of inhibition. I think another way to look at it is that I try to bypass my ego and allow the art to flow unencumbered. I want the poem to surprise me. I see the creative act as being made more with the body than the brain, because it feels more physical than cognitive. 

LV: “To My Ancestors” is probably my favorite poem in the collection. You write: “We’ve made these weapons that / could end all life (sorry). We carry candlelight / in our pockets. Well, I can’t explain it all, // but there’s a sense the end is near." There are multiple moments of parenthetical interruptions that draw me in and feel like whispered asides. Poems like that such as “Ars Poetica” and “Choose Your Own Adventure” seem interested in the different ways we tell stories, turning the possibilities over in their structure, and attempt to pull readers into their telling through their meta self-awareness. Did you order your manuscript with a narrative arc in mind or perhaps something else?

BA: When I first arranged the poems for this collection, I placed them in chronological order, starting with any poems that were related to childhood memories. I knew this wouldn’t work going into it, but I wanted to see the narrative thread between the poems with as much clarity as possible. Around that same time, I watched Kurt Vonnegut’s talk on the narrative arc, which I found illuminating. Again, I was self-aware enough through this process to know that I wasn’t creating a clear narrative, and I definitely wasn’t working on a novel, but narrative comes in many different forms, especially in poetry. 

I like the way you said that, “whispered asides.” I think that’s a good way to look at the way I constructed the “narrative” in this collection; by juggling conscious and subconscious realities. I wanted to weave the physical world and the imagined world to create an ebb and flow of order and chaos. 

LV: In the book there’s an awareness of the instability of nature that hums through the poems. In “Roots” you remember Popocatépetl’s volcanic eruption on December 21, 1994. I imagine living in California with the threat of wildfires and earthquakes ever present that it’s always somewhere in your head. Is your attention to nature a conscious poetic attention or a remnant of its constant presence in your life?

BA: Definitely the latter. My childhood and adolescent years are marked by constant natural disasters. As you’ve alluded to, it’s not uncommon for life in Sacramento–especially recently due to climate change–to include a wildfire season, a time where living under a veil of smoke is as expected as spring rain or summer heat. In Puebla, when Popo started erupting, we would wake up to a gray world. Cars, buildings, roads, and trees would be covered in a layer of ash. 

But beyond the instability of nature and my healthy fear of its power, there is also a deep appreciation and love for the beauty in nature. I think anyone who attempts to connect with nature should have an understanding of both. Growing up in Sacramento, we were a short drive to Lake Tahoe. We took a lot of day trips to lakes, rivers, and forests to get out of the city. Then I got into snowboarding when I was older. Snowboarding, for me, is part sport and exercise, and part meditation and connecting with nature. Now, in San Diego, I enjoy gardening. Slowing down and caring for plants in this way helps me see that the concept of nature is a human construct. I used to see nature as something I would escape to, and I now see it as something I am a part of. 

LV: Talk to me about your invented form “Tectonics.” When did you write the first one? I think constraints often produce unexpected results in poems. Did you have the constraints in mind before you wrote one or was creating the form a sort of trial-and-error process? 

BA: I was taking Blas Falconer’s Poetry Form & Theory course at San Diego State University. In the course, we would study a form, read examples, and then write a poem in that form. One of the assignments toward the end of the semester was to invent our own form. The first idea I had became the “Tectonics” form: take a prose poem, duplicate it (copy and paste it below the original), and whatever words I removed from the first prose paragraph remained in the second, and vice versa. At first, the fractured language seemed too messy and I thought it was a flop. Then magic little phrases started to appear like, “the first american was built.” I started to appreciate the messy, chaotic moments and the way words gained room to breathe on the page. Things were happening with language that I wouldn’t have thought of if not for this form. To your point, constraints produce unexpected results, and I love being surprised with my own writing.


Brent Ameneyro is the author of the chapbook Puebla (Ghost City Press, 2023) and the collection A Face Out of Clay (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2024). He is the 2022–2023 Letras Latinas Poetry Coalition Fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Latino Studies. He currently serves as the Poetry Editor at The Los Angeles Review.

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, Sho Poetry Journal, AGNI, among others.


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