Sunday May 26

Quintanilla Poetry Octavio Quintanilla is the author of the poetry collection,  If I Go Missing  (Slough Press, 2014). His poetry, fiction, translations, and photography have appeared, or are forthcoming, in journals such as Salamander, RHINO, Alaska Quarterly Review, Pilgrimage, Green Mountains Review, Southwestern American Literature, The Texas Observer, Existere: A Journal of Art & Literature, and elsewhere. Reviews of his work can be found at CutBank Literary Journal, Concho River Review, San Antonio Express-News, American Microreviews & Interviews, Southwestern American Literature, Pleiades,  and others. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas and is the regional editor for Texas Books in Review.   He teaches Literature and Creative Writing in the M.A./M.F.A. program at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas. Find him on Twitter @OctQuintanilla.

Octavio Quintanilla Interview, with Ӧsel Jessica Plante

Is there a poet whose work you repeatedly return to? Why?

The poet whose work I return to repeatedly changes with every new discovery I make. And by “discovery” I mean that sometimes the work I return to might be a poet’s first book, or the work of a poet I’ve read for years but whose work still teaches me even after the 50th reading. Lately, I’ve been attempting to write love poems, and St. John of the Cross, sets a tone I like, one of intensity and spirited feeling. I’ve been returning to the poem Canciónes entre el alma y el esposo, or as it is translated into English, The Spiritual Canticle. Also, I’ve been writing shorter poems, something that, after my first book, I seemed to reject. I was under the impression that my second collection had to take more “risks” in terms of style and structure, the poems would be longer, more complex. And yes, some of them are longer, more layered, but one of the things I’m realizing as I revise is that I really like short poems, too, poems that pack uncertainty in a few lines and yet are driven by a sense of inevitable closure.

In your writing, family and a sense of loss seem intertwined with a threatened cultural identity, especially in view of the borderlands between Mexico and the U.S. What do you see as the role of family in the geography of your poetry?

Family has always played an important role in my poems. You find the familial in If I Go Missing, my first collection of poetry, but in many of my new poems I try to find out more about where I come from, try to explore what was lost when I came to live on this side of the border when I turned nine years old. You see, although I was born in Texas, I lived in Mexico till I was nine, in a small town in the state of Tamaulipas. About four hours south west of McAllen, Texas. There, I went to school, had friends, got into trouble, helped my folks with daily chores. One day everything changed. My parents stayed behind and my brother and I came to live with my grandmother in Weslaco, TX. Everything I was, everything I knew, remained in Mexico the moment I crossed the Rio Grande. Including my first language: Spanish. This is a story that I didn’t really talk about when I would read from If I Go Missing. Now I do. It’s there, but till now only I knew the emotional dislocation that make up those poems. In the new poems, I explore this even more. And the poem, “Parting” is precisely about this geographical and emotional disruption.

What is one book of poetry you think everyone should read?

This is a difficult question to answer, similar to the question, “Is there a poet whose work you repeatedly return to?” Hard to just talk about one poet, one book, so I’ll suggest three: Ana Castillo’s My Father Was a Toltec, Natalie Diaz’ When My Brother Was an Aztec, and Emmy Pérez’ With the River on Our Face. These are three books that I’ve taught in my classes and that I admire.

Can you give us an abbreviated description of your creative process?

I’m realizing that photography is becoming an essential component of my creative process. For me, taking a photo has become a way of seeing, another way I pay attention to the world around me, a way to slow down the way I interact with, and see, another human being. Knowing that I have a camera with me, even if it’s just my phone camera, makes me look at the world in a different way. I’m learning patience. Learning to be more alert. More attentive. This sort of seeing, this alertness is usually the starting point for much of my poetry, or the catalyst for other creative endeavors .

If you had to choose a patron saint or muse for your poetic life, who would it be?

Good question, Ösel ! But I’m undecided. Not sure if I want it to be Carlos Fuentes who tells me: “The mysterious part of creativity is dreaming,” or José Emilio Pacheco who assures me: “In poetry there is no happy ending.” I’ll get back to you.

Are there any upcoming projects or collaborations you can tell us about?

Currently, I’m working on an anthology with the working title, Valley of Resistance: New Poets of the Rio Grande Valley. It’ll be an anthology composed of poets born, raised, or transplanted to the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas. As you know, I’m from there, and as you know, the RGV is a unique landscape that has long been a site of migration and emigration, a meeting place and mixing-zone of peoples and cultures that has birthed a significant literature of resistance, including Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. And although there are numerous anthologies that include poets from the RGV, we still do not have one anthology that can be the go-to text for readers, students, and scholars. Poets from this area are teaching, publishing, presenting in conferences, and winning literary prizes; in short, they are actively making their claims in the world of literature. It is time to collect them in a definitive anthology, especially now, a time when our collective voice needs to be heard more than ever. For the submission details, please visit here

What is your favorite food?

One of my favorite foods is caldo de res, a Mexican beef vegetable soup. But I’ll never say no to Texas Barbecue.  


There was a time
I had no word for darkness,
and so I said, darkness.

I had no word to say devotion,
and so I said, Two sons
grieving one mother.

A time came when our parents
sat under a tree
and cried for us, their sons

on their way
to a new country.

When I try to return to my boyhood,

sometimes I end
with my head

on my mother’s           lap.

Love Poem with Two Fires

First, I dream my teeth are falling off and I try to push them back in place.

Then, I dream I take things out of my mouth.
Cotton, for instance, or a woman’s endless braid of hair.

I see my future move ahead without me
and no one comes to explain what I am
ceasing to be.

My best nights are when I dream
you are a fire in the middle of the wilderness.

I am your favorite tree burning
in that fire.

Never Been to El Paso, TX

You are black
In the center

Of my eye black
Like the map

Where I draw
My faceless face

Black with the blood
of my bitten nails

Black like the sharp
Edge of water

That touches your feet
And moves you

To dance black
Like the shore

Where I always
Lose you black

Like the womb
I draw with my awful

Longing black
Between two lines

Of a notebook
Where I glued

A strand of your black
Hair black every time

I open myself
with your name’s

two syllables
Black when I try to blur

my skin with what's left
Of you black

Is what remains
Black like mist this

Black trail I follow black
In my days

Cursing the hours
Black like the sweet

Youth of your shame
Black like the highway

I drove thin
To lose you black

Like the ink
Of your tongue

Wake me black in that sea 
Wake me black to the taste

Of your holy water.