“Silence, for me, was a constant”: A Conversation with Marcelo Hernandez Castillo
In September 2019, writer Marcelo Hernandez Castillo visited the University of Oklahoma at the invitation of the Mark Allen Everett Poetry Series, participating in events sponsored by LALT’s sister publication World Literature Today. Arthur Dixon, Managing Editor of LALT, sat down with Hernandez Castillo to discuss his poetic and nonfiction writing, his interest in translation, his work as a literary activist, and his career as an undocumented poet in the United States.
Arthur Dixon: First of all, thank you for being here. It’s a pleasure to have you at OU, and welcome to Oklahoma. To get started, I want to ask you a question that seems pertinent since you’re here, in a new place, and we’re doing this interview in public for Latin American Literature Today. When reading your work I’ve noticed that you talk a lot about silence, keeping quiet, and having to keep things hidden and secret as an undocumented person. What does it feel like now to be so loud, to be able to express yourself in such a public way?
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: Thank you for asking that, and thanks everybody for being here, it’s an honor. It’s kind of ironic to be a writer but also have this looming fear of saying things or fear of speaking, and that’s probably one of the reasons why I got into writing very early in life. It was a way to do both, to say what I wanted to say while at the same time maintaining some kind of control over either who could hear me or what they could extrapolate from it. I was always very conscious of things that got away from me, of things that people would think about me without me being able to explain them. Silence, for me, was a constant, throughout my entire life. Silence has always been the go-to survival mechanism repeated over and over again by my family. No matter how well you know somebody, no matter how connected you are, you don’t tell them certain things about you, and these things were about documentation. It was a very different time then in terms of acceptance in the community, there was a lot more stigma to being undocumented in the nineties and early two thousands, even among circles of friends and like-minded people. I write in my next book that the border doesn’t really exist in the southern United States, that’s only a marker. The border exists where people take it, in the silences that we’re forced to impose on ourselves in the aftermath of migration, in the aftermath of that trauma, in the fear that there is always the chance that something or someone is out to get you. That kind of paranoia led me to write my first book, the book of poems, in such a way that I could, through a surrealistic lens, be able to hide through images, behind images. I think my first book of poems is a very quiet book, because I was able to say what I wanted to say without fear of the consequences.
AD: Your poems are charged with images, and quiet, as you say, but also very physical, very visual. I’m interested to know how you came to that kind of poetry, and to poetry in general. In your essay “Poetry As A Passport,” which was published on Buzzfeed, you tell how you started writing as a way to express yourself and make sound out of the silence you experienced. How were those first steps into poetry? What were your initial influences and how did you approach them as someone coming from without?
MHC: I didn’t write a poem in the first person until after many years of being interested in poetry, and reading poetry and literature. It was only when I was accepted into a writing retreat in northern California, where I was removed from the environment in which I had spent most of my life, that I was finally able to write the word “I” in a poem. I can pinpoint it to that week, which I think is kind of unique, because my memory is terrible. I remember the point at which I was able to put myself in a poem rather than come to poetry from the outside. As I say in that essay, when I was in high school and I didn’t know what the literary landscape was like, I was okay with coming to poetry rather than existing inside of it, because I didn’t feel like I belonged to it. I didn’t see myself in some of the writers I read. But a lot of that has changed, and now I do see myself working within the literary landscape and responding to, collaborating with, and contributing something to that landscape, I hope.
AD: You’ve used poetry to respond to a situation that is, in itself, built upon language—the language of documents, the language of words written on official pieces of paper. Tell us a little bit about the efforts you’ve made with Undocupoets to help increase access for other undocumented writers to institutions such as MFA programs and literary prizes, which are increasingly necessary in order to make a space for oneself in the literary world.
MHC: There are certain things as small as changing the language on a literary program’s introductory website, the “What We’re About” section, so it says, “We are a program inclusive of all documentation statuses.” Even just that might give someone hope that there’s somebody behind the scenes who will advocate for them. Undocupoets was started by Javier Zamora, Christopher Soto, and me, and I now direct it along with the poets Janine Joseph and Esther Lin. We continue to work on finding pockets of exclusionary experiences, which still exist. When my book was published, we got an email from the National Book Award asking, “If we consider this, will you be a citizen by the time the award is presented?” Fortunately, after being granted DACA in 2013, I was able to adjust my status and become a permanent resident. Even then, I still wouldn’t qualify for things like the National Book Award, the Guggenheim, the Pulitzer—not to say I would get the Pulitzer—and so on. I think I could still apply to the NEA, but there are still certain barriers of access that lead some people to think, “Why bother?”
The latest organizing effort by two of our Undocupoets co-founders, along with two of our current Undocupoets fellows, is called Writers for Migrant Justice. They organized a nationwide campaign and raised well over twenty-five thousand dollars, just by spreading the word and having people come to readings. I think that tells us a lot about what we can accomplish as writers, what our role in literary activism is, and what our responsibilities are. Another project I’m going to be starting with the poet Tess Taylor is a campaign in which people will promise to lead off each of their poetry readings between now and the November 2020 elections with a fundraiser for Immigrant Families Together or other great projects like the Florence Project, which gives free legal assistance and bond aid to migrants detained at the border. People need to hear about how to help from somebody they trust. It’s really eye-opening to talk to people who say, “I want to help, I just don’t know how. I’m willing to help, I just don’t know how.” So that’s going to be our next project, to try to convince the hosts and writers at each of our readings to preface their readings with organizations that people can help support.
AD: Speaking of literary activism, let’s talk about your current work, teaching in an MFA program and also working with incarcerated youth. I’d be interested to know what you’ve learned and what you’ve been able to teach working with youth, and how you would compare working with people within an institution like an MFA to working with people who have been excluded from that kind of opportunity, who are being exposed to that kind of education for the first time.
MHC: Both groups are part of a structural institution, just very different kinds. I’ve learned a lot from working with incarcerated kids. I feel like I need to up my game in terms of being a good teacher—I see that I’ve taken a lot of the things I teach for granted, when I say either, “My students should know this,” or, “They should be interested in this, they should do this work on their own.” It’s been rewarding, challenging, and eye-opening. I teach some of the same poems in both spaces. At the very core of it, the question is, what is a poem? How do we express some of our basic experiences?
I feel fortunate that they’re able to trust me with their experiences. It’s a majority male population, even though the juvenile hall there is co-ed, and they have to give trust, to be vulnerable in telling their experiences in a way that is much riskier than it would be in an MFA program. We’re always taught to write in a way that feels like we’re taking a risk, to write what is important to us, and our subject matter is important to us in the workshops that I teach at the juvenile hall. These kids are reliving a lot of their traumas, dealing with them, and trusting that their friends won’t judge them for writing a very sentimental poem, or a poem about a subject they wouldn’t normally want to write about. The risk really comes to the surface. One time there was a fight because a student felt that his poem was being ridiculed, and I didn’t see that student for another few weeks because they restricted him from coming to the poetry workshops. But they want to come to the workshops, they want to be there, and that’s something special to me.
AD: On the topic of collaborating with others, and because Latin American Literature Today always tries to emphasize translation, I’d like to ask you as well about your work as a translator. How did you get started with that? Was it something that came through exposure in classes, or something that you just came to personally?
MHC: Going back to what I said about the nineties and the mid-two thousands, even up until 2010, 2011, it was a difficult thing to reconcile. Spanish was my first language, I speak it just as well as English and I can write it as well, but I felt like I always had to hide that part of myself because it said too much about me, shamefully. I wish I hadn’t done that for as many years as I did, in order to just fly under the radar, to just get by. A dear friend of mine—the prolific, incredible poet C.D. Wright, a mentor who has since passed away—asked me one day, “Hey, do you translate? I’m having trouble with this phrase, can you help me?” I hadn’t ever thought about it, and I said I would help. She sent me a few pages, I forget who it was by.
She didn’t know it at the time, but she gave me permission to function in Spanish. That moment of being asked to help her awoke something in me that I felt had been missing. It grew and grew until I started doing my own translations, and we continued to collaborate as well. The only translation I had really done previously was forms for my parents at the doctor’s office or the DMV, verbal translation at the mechanic, very practical approaches to translation. You have to be efficient, you have to be quick, and I think I carried some of that into my literary translation. Unfortunately, my friend passed away, and I continued some of the work we did together afterwards and sent it to her partner. Since then I’ve been really interested in reading bilingual work also, work by individual authors who translate their own work and publish it bilingually. I was just teaching Francisco X. Alarcón, who writes a lot of bilingual poetry. But it was that linchpin moment with C.D. Wright that gave me permission to finally go back to Spanish.
AD: You can sometimes see translation as similar to acting, getting into character. In your own poetry, I’ve noticed there are different voices interacting, an element of character, of performance. I’m thinking especially of your poems that are written in the style of interviews. Do you think in your own writing, as well as in translation, there’s an element of multiple voices playing different parts?
MHC: For me, that poem was really about the interview itself, the interview as a form of knowledge, the interview that produces—I don’t want to say “a product,” because that has weird capitalistic insinuations—but that produces a new thing, a body of knowledge. Even if it’s an interview on a late-night talk show, with Don Francisco, Jay Leno, or David Letterman. I didn’t translate anything in my book of poems, everything just existed either in Spanish or in English, and there were no bridges in between, no markers that would explain what was being said in Spanish. It exists in both languages.
In my memoir, my prose book, that was a really hard decision. I went back through all one hundred thirteen thousand words, sifting through dialogues in Spanish. My mother doesn’t know English, so how do I present her to my audience? Do I present her in Spanish and then translate? Do I explain through context clues so they can guess what’s being said, or a combination of both? Or strictly in English? That was a very difficult decision.
AD: Speaking of your new memoir, Children of the Land, what was it like making the transition from poetry to prose? You mentioned earlier that this book had a tighter deadline—it sounds like it was different from your previous work for a number of reasons. What was that experience like?
MHC: In general, it’s a much more lyrical book because of the fact that I approached it as a poet. One of the starkest differences was that I could no longer—I don’t want to say “hide”—but I could no longer be as comfortable talking about myself as I was in the book of poems, because the poems were a lot more imagistic, symbolic, surreal, and I was comfortable in that ethereal space. There’s hardly any mention of real times or places in the book of poems. I think it only mentions one actual place, and another actual time—1959, the year my uncle was born in Esparto, California, this town west of Davis, California where my mom spent a lot of time working. Other than that, it’s not placed in any time. But in a memoir, you have to reveal facts. It has led to a lot of family drama about what we can say about ourselves and what we want to say about ourselves, and it was very, very difficult to navigate that fine line between what I can say and what I cannot. A lot of things I talk about are still in progress, they’re still in the works. What I say could affect them. I had to be really careful with that, and I also had to come to terms with writing in a more autobiographical manner, not having that subtlety that I had in the book of poems. And also having that timeline—I had to finish it in two years. But in the end, I’m really, really happy with what we ended up producing. What I pitched is very different from what we ended up with, between my editor and me, and she was okay with it. Now that it’s over, I’m not sure if the next project I have in mind will be poetry or prose—I’m not sure what vehicle it’ll choose to take, what container it will go in.
September 18, 2019
Arthur Dixon works as a translator and as Managing Editor of Latin American Literature Today. His translation of Andrés Felipe Solano’s “The Nameless Saints” (WLT, Sept. 2014) was nominated for a 2014 Pushcart Prize, and his most recent project is a book-length translation of Arturo Gutiérrez Plaza’s Cuidados intensivos (see WLT, Sept. 2016).
Marcelo Hernandez Castillo is a poet, essayist, translator, and immigration advocate born in Tepechitlán, Zacatecas, Mexico. He earned his B.A. from Sacramento State University and was the first undocumented student to graduate from the Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan. He is a founding member of the Undocupoets campaign, which successfully eliminated citizenship requirements from all major first poetry book prizes in the country and was recognized with the Barnes and Noble Writers for Writers award. He is the author of Cenzontle, which was awarded the 2017 A. Poulin, Jr. Prize and published by BOA editions in 2018. His memoir, Children of the Land, was published by Harper Collins in January of 2020. He is the translator of Argentine modernist poet Jacobo Fijman and is currently translating the poems of contemporary Mexican Peruvian poet Yaxkin Melchy. He co-translated the work of the Mexican poet Marcelo Uribe with C.D. Wright before her untimely passing. He teaches at the Ashland Low-Res MFA Program and gives poetry workshops for incarcerated youth in Northern California, where he lives with his wife, son, and extended family.
In our August 2020 issue, we celebrate the work of women writers and translators in honor of Women in Translation Month, highlighting the work of Victoria de Stefano, Krina Ber, Rowena Hill, and Margara Russotto—four women united by the coincidence of emigrating to Venezuela and becoming renowned writers in Spanish. We also pay homage to a giant of Latin American letters, Rodolfo Enrique Fogwill, on the tenth anniversary of his passing, and we highlight the work of Mé’pháá writer Hubert Matiúwàa in our Indigenous Literature section. This #WITMonth issue is rounded out with exclusive previews of upcoming books from women translators and an interview with translator Annie McDermott, plus poetry, fiction, interviews, and reviews of fascinating new releases from across Latin America.
Cover Photo: Grupo Mondongo