Daniel Chacón interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Daniel Chacón interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Daniel, after many years of penning highly-regarded, well-reviewed prose, you’ve turned your hand to poetry. Why this craziness?
I think turning to poetry was inevitable. When I started writing fiction, my prose—although as pithy as it could be at the time—was much less language-driven and had more emphasis on story and character. As I started to develop my own voice, my own esthetic, I found that language could lead me into a story, could in fact take the story to places I had no intention of going, that language could even create an anti-story. With my collection that won the Hudson Prize, Unending Rooms, not only did some of the stories surprise me, but some of them ended up being pieces that couldn’t rightfully be called stories, so I had to make up terms for myself, “loops and rooms,” which I used as part of the title for my next book of fiction, Hotel Juárez, Stories, Rooms, and Loops.
I remember an interview with Don DeLillo in the Paris Review. He said that he’s more than willing to allow the language of the story to take over. I’m paraphrasing, but as naïve as I was back then about the craft, as new as I was to writing fiction, I felt like I was hearing something ground breaking. I was blown away. I learned to allow the language to lead the story, but I also learned how to not let the language take over the form like a demon and create something no one could understand.
One must learn to negotiate impulse and restraint. One must learn to not let duende, which is born of rhythm and sound, completely possess the spirit of the work.
I admire fiction writers such as Toni Morrison and Garcia Marquez, those who allow their language to lead the narrative into irreal landscapes. In the novel Jazz, Morrison is describing the city and suddenly we see a man playing the saxophone falling out of the sky. Who gets away with that?? Because her language in that novel is itself like jazz, it can go anywhere. Readers accept that a man playing the saxophone can fall from the sky.
Also, I have a radio show called Words on a Wire. I read a lot of books of poems and then have the poet on the show. I can ask him or her anything. I've interviewed such great poets as CD Wright, Philip Levine, Mark Strand, Camille Dungy, and you, just to name a few. I get to ask anything I want about the book I just read. It caused me to not only enjoy poetry more, but to understand the process, and in the process, I learned that I love poetry. Frankly I'm not sure I’ll ever write another book of fiction.
What are your influences as a poet, and how do they (if they do) differ from your influences as a fiction writer?
I'm influenced by almost every poet I read, and that’s why I avoid reading poets whose language or aesthetic do not contribute to my poetic development. I love reading the poems of Borges, who is also a great influence on my fiction. The Texas Review of Books called me “the Borges of the border,” and although I wouldn’t make such a claim, el gran Borges has been one of my greatest dead teachers. I have listened over and over to his Harvard lectures on the craft of Poetry, on the metaphor, and have studied his work and other talks he has given.
Other poets that influenced me are the ones I mentioned above, those I have had on the show as well as young poets like Barbara Jane Reyes, Lee Herrick, Sherwin Bitsui, Brian Turner, Eugene Gloria. When I read poets I admire, I learn their techniques. Take Patrick Rosal. I love his fast rhythm. I love how each poem decides whether or not it's going to use punctuation and how fast the poems can be read. With Mark Strand, I love how the language can lead you into any situation, "real” or not, that what really matters is where the poem wants to go, not where the mind or logic wants to go. I’m a big advocate of poetic logic. Like most poets, I admire the music and the images of Lorca. Ed Hirsch has been a great influence on me as well, not only his poems which are fantastic, mystical and grounded at the same time, but also in his books about poetry. He’s one of the most important living poets, and I was happy I got a chance to interview him on the radio show.
I love the stories and character depth of Patricia Smith; I love the precision of Tracy K. Smith, I love how Natalie Diaz creates a painting with each poem, but the general answer is I am influenced by any poet who writes a good line. The line, the line, the line.
I’m in love with the line.
I’m like a coke addict. I love lines.
A good line in poetry is like a good paragraph in fiction: even though it belongs to a larger piece and the impact of the work cannot necessarily be understood outside of the entire work, the line should be self contained. I love to read a line that can be lifted from a poem, like a tune from a song. The philosophers say music is the highest form of art, and that makes sense to me, but I think poetry is second in line. You cannot paraphrase a great poem anymore than you can summarize a Bach fugue or a Chopin étude.
You have to be there, in the poem, in time, experiencing it. I find that very beautiful.
As if poetry were not enough, you’ve lately made some appearances as a stand-up comedian! Again, why this craziness? What has the experience been like?
The fact that I’m dipping into standup comedy seems just as logical as my plunge into poems. Standup is a writer’s medium. Of course, there is no standup comedy without performance, and a good standup comic must be able to deliver their lines with variety.
However, it’s a writer’s medium. The successful comedians write every day. They are disciplined in writing, whether they feel like it or not, whether they feel a premise is going to pay off or not, and that’s much like the poet and the fiction writer.
When I commit to writing a poem, I may not know what it's going to be like, or even what it's about, but I feel an impulse to follow an image and to breath language into a poem, to watch it come to life. Standup comedy works the same way. When a premise occurs to a comedian, whether or not the joke is there, whether or not it's even funny, they write it down. They follow that premise and keep going over it until they find the joke, or until the joke reveals itself.
In an interview, Ellen Degeneres, one of the greatest female standup comics of our time, says that she heard that penguins mate for life. She didn't know why, but she knew there was a joke there somewhere, so she wrote it down, “Penguins mate for life.” Later on the joke revealed itself, and onstage she said, “Of course penguins mate for life. They all look alike. It's not like you're going to find a better looking penguin.”
Doing standup in LA was probably one of the most intimidating things that I've ever done in my life. It’s getting easier, but it’s scarier than anything I’ve ever done, and exhilarating, too. I've been a fiction writer for years, and I've done many readings at colleges and universities and community centers, and I know (all writers know this) the audience is not only willing to laugh, they want to laugh. A writer can get behind the podium and say just about anything and the audience will laugh. And even if they don’t laugh, it’s okay, because you’re not there to make them laugh, and you just look down on your book and read another story, read another poem
But being funny at a reading, like Philip Levine, who is quite witty and always makes his audience laugh, is not the same thing as doing standup comedy. You're walking into an audience that expects to laugh. They are there to laugh, and they expect you to be funny, and you better be. Also, there’s always members of the audience who think it’s okay to heckle, to yell, “You suck!” or to contribute to your joke. Imagine if it was like that for poets. You’re reading a poem and people in the audience start yelling at you, they scream, “Get off the stage!” or they think they can enhance your lines by yelling out their own. Who would want to do a poetry reading under those circumstances?
But why the craziness? Why did I get up on stage and am still getting up on stage and telling jokes?
I'm working on a book about standup comedy, and I didn't feel like I could really understand what it feels like to get onstage to make people laugh unless I tried it myself.
The first time I went on stage, I murdered. I've done it several times since then, and I’ve often bombed, and I’ve often done pretty well, and a few times I killed. Comedians say it takes about a year or two before you find your comedic voice, and it's been less than a year for me. I don't have my voice yet, and although I record every show I do, I am not yet sharing them on YouTube or social media. I’m still at the draft stage. I'm looking for my voice, the rhythm, and I'm constantly writing jokes. I should say I'm writing “routines,” as I'm still studying joke structure and have yet to write many jokes in the conventional way. In an interview, Roseanne Barr says that she would get on stage for a long time, perhaps over a year, and bomb. It wasn't until she found her rhythm that she knew everything was going to be all right. She compares standup to jazz, and she's not the only one to do so, because there is an improvisational aspect to standup comedy and it’s about the music, the language, the rhythm. Standup comedy, like Jazz, is a uniquely American art form. But it’s getting popular worldwide.
Also, drinking alcohol and standup comedy are bedfellows, and sometimes you get some pretty bad fellas. They get louder the more they drink. And dammit, you better make them laugh. If you don’t, they’ll boo you or worse.
A couple of times that I got onstage, I didn't bring material in the sense that I knew what I was going to talk about, but I wanted to interact with the audience. Overall, when you're on stage holding the mike and people are looking up at you expecting to laugh, your relationship with that audience is number one. It supersedes everything. No relationship, no laughs. It doesn't matter how well-crafted the jokes might be. I find that challenging.
In standup, when you bomb, it hurts. But I even love the hurt, because it teaches me more about the craft.
You’ve also been on the road these past months, plugging your latest book, collection of stories, Hotel Juárez: Stories, Rooms and Loops, published earlier this summer by Houston's Arte Publico Press. How’s that all been going? What can you tell us about the book?
The book is doing very well, perhaps my most critically acclaimed book to date. It has received excellent reviews, and I just found out (I haven’t even announced it yet) it has won the Pen Oakland award for fiction. It's perhaps my favorite book so far, because it is the kind of fiction that I like to read. Many of the stories are incredibly short. Some of them are very long. And even though they’re not connected stories, there are loops within the stories that lead back to an earlier idea, an image, a rhythm. I don't tie images together from one story to the next in terms of plot or theme, but simply in terms of energy.
I took a year to travel wherever I could to promote the book, including a reading in Beijing, China, which was a fantastic experience. It was at The Foreign Language Institute, so all the students were studying English. They read the stories ahead of time, and after my reading, they had some interesting questions, like “What is a cholo? What is a lowrider?”
Daniel, you seem a restless sort to me, always on the move always experimenting. Is that a fair assessment? If so, how does this restlessness factor into your work as a writer and teacher?
I travel a lot. I'm always moving around, and even when I live within a particular city for a period of time I tend to move from place to place. This may be restlessness, but I prefer to think of it as living life in a metaphorical tent. I like to be free to go east or west or south or north, wherever the wind takes me. I like to be able to pull up the tent stakes and go to the next place. My home, to quote the title from Carlos Bulosan, is in the heart.
My father, before he died, was reminiscing about my childhood. He laughed as he told me that they had to lock the doors of the house because I would get out and start walking. I walked down the street, as if looking for something. In a sense, I'm still like that. I love to travel to new lands. I love to walk into new cities. But I don't travel in the sense that most people think of travel. I don't put on a backpack and go from city to city, two nights here, three nights there. I don’t hold a tourist map and a list of all the things I want to see in a particular city. I rent an apartment, and I stay somewhere for months at a time. I live as if I lived in the city. I walk the streets without a destination, and I love how cities reveal themselves. They have characters. They have personalities, they have spirits, and they can lead you. Everything I do contributes to how I write and how I teach writing, but I don’t go to other places to write about them. I just go, and then perhaps years later the lands might appear in my work. In Hotel Juárez, I have a story called “Mais je suis chicano.” It’s based on an experience I had when I stayed in Paris. I rented an apartment in a plaza, and whenever the Arabic homeboys who used to hang out there saw me, they said hi to me, or the French equivalent of Whass up? I got to know some of them and I saw how much like Chicanos they could be. I was able to get a glimpse of Paris through their perspective.
The book of poems I’m working on is titled Kafka Calling Me Home. Kafka’s my dog, and when I’m in a city at night, far away from him, and I hear a dog barking in the distance, I always imagine it’s my own. He’s calling me home.
In an interview in the El Paso Times, you are quoted as saying, "I was a California writer but finally I'm at a point where I'm an El Paso writer. The landscape here is so powerful; it's hard not to be influenced." I was lucky to have had the opportunity to have visited El Paso to read at your school several months ago and was struck by how incredibly different that landscape really is, how the landscape of my poetry so stands in contrast to that of other poets and how this resonates in each poet’s work in unexpected (as well as expected) ways. How long did it take you to interiorize that El Paso landscape and how does it reveal itself, now, in your work?
I think the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez landscape has always been inside of me, but it took a few years for me to uncover it, or to let it come out in my language and in the images that strike me. My grandparents are from this region. In fact, when I moved to El Paso, having come here from California, I discovered I had over 50 cousins that lived in the city, cousins whom I had never met. If you look at my last name, and you look at the phonebook in El Paso, you will see hundreds of Chacons. In fact, I think my last name has its origins in Chihuahua, the Mexican state that borders El Paso.
By coming here over ten years ago, it was as if I were returning to my family's homeland.
I always say (and have yet to be contradicted) that if you are a Chicano, you will have relatives in El Paso or Los Angeles or both. In many ways El Paso is the Chicano homeland. I don't plan on writing about a place. Like I said above, when I travel somewhere, I don't go there to write about it, but inevitably it comes out in the work. Even if it's years later. It took me ten years of living in El Paso before I started writing stories set in El Paso. But it wasn't a choice on my part. I didn't set out to write about El Paso. But it became a part of me and how I see the world.
Hotel Juárez is almost entirely set on the border, the twin cities of El Paso, TX and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, with some stories set in Paris, Buenos Aires (a city I know very well and have stayed in for long periods of time), and even Poland. In the book of poems I’m currently working on, in which the ones published here will be included, a lot of the poems are set in El Paso/Juárez or evoke the twin cities.
Heard any good jokes lately? These days, we could all probably use one.
Not really. But if you have one I’d love to hear it. But be warned, I might use it in my act. Good comedians borrow. Great comedians steal.
World of the Dead
“The dead don’t know / anymore than we do”
Let the dead bury the dead Jesus said
meaning don’t think they’re angels
you can consult on matters of life meaning
incomplete they cannot complete you
meaning they’re rife with their own frights
Let the dead bury the dead Jesus said meaning
they can be self-absorbed sons
of bitches and the things they have
to do do with their own want and they want
a lot the taste of beer the smell of sex
Don’t even talk to them They can’t see beyond self
and they’re not here to help
Your business is not their unfinished task you’re not why
their energy hangs back They don’t give a howl
about you The reason you cry into your hands
means nothing to them They’re not saints
and though this may be hard to take they are
demons by any other name who make big deals
about themselves not you what they need
and it‘s pretty petty at that My father craves 7 & 7
after 7&7 watching girls who’ll never love him dance
My mother stares through the window worrying
her wisteria will wither in the scorch of an Indian sun
I won’t disrespect them but they need to put themselves
to rest Let them find their own peace They can only
drag you down into the world of the dead
and it’s the same damned world
you’re in now only sadder
Imagination Exam #1
What do you see when I say
A black guy on a skateboard
A Mexican chasing his sister down a hill
A boy surrounded by dogs
Dr. Herrera holds a stethoscope to the chest of a young brunette
Shirtless boys stand on the roof of a house as the sun falls over São Paulo
Street lamps and dogs
A bridge only the dead walk across
¡La gente unida jamás será vencida!
An archer shoots an arrow into the face of God
Women walk into the forest of night
The mayor’s daughters are looking at the moon!
Children forgotten in a hot car, strapped to seats
A violent storm. A wicked storm. Terrible.
Sandy in tennis shoes pulling socks to her knees
An overheard conversation:
Do you miss the river?
I do. I do.
A chicken screaming before Diana chops off her head
Your brother waving as he gets into a white van.
Thirteen candles burn in the eyes of a crow
Les yeux ne t’appartient pas. Ou les a tu pris?
A pile of heads on the side of the road
(or maybe they’re stones)
If there’s a wall as old as your city, there will be faces inside of it
jealous of your legs
Sometimes when walking after hours down the halls of the school,
Sometimes when walking after hours down the halls of the school,
you think there’s a pirate following you
Diana’s ankle as she steps into the house where you no longer live
The last thing you see before you fall asleep at the wheel of your car
The blur you see when you wake up