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Far from Los Catrachos

An interview with MFA candidate Roy Guzman
January 3, 2017
Guzman leaning against a tree

Tell me a bit about your background.

I was born in Honduras and raised in Miami. I received a comparative literature BA from the University of Chicago and continued to get an MA in comparative literature from Dartmouth. My main field is poetry, and I’ve been working on a manuscript that focuses on issues of immigration and issues of queerness, during my time at the University of Minnesota. I have a background in comparative literature, and even though I’ve done a lot of work in poetry, I have also translated prose.

My writing looks at the violence I see in Honduras as well as the violence I see here. I look at what’s left after the past historical chaos and try to frame thoughts and emotions of people becoming disenfranchised through my writing, while developing thoughts of the role I play in this process.

How did you find poetry? What were your influences?

It was something that I continued besides school. At college I thought that I wanted to do something in history, but I also really enjoyed chemistry, science, and math. I took a variety of courses to find my calling, but it wasn’t until my third year of college when I was exposed to a literature class, that my eyes were opened to something I loved. I loved language and being able to talk about my experiences. Unfortunately, my college literature courses were heavily based on critiquing and writing academic pieces; therefore, I never found a concrete support group for actually writing poetry or engaging in creative writing instead of critiquing it. The very first poem that I ever wrote, when I was finally able to admit that it was acceptable to call it a poetry piece, happened during my final year in college.

After college, I worked at a law firm as a paralegal for three years. In that time, I asked myself: “What do I want to do with my life? Do I really want to go to law school?” Every day, I would take the train to work and I would pick up a book of poems to read on my way. That was extremely eye opening; I noticed I was building this habit of reading poetry and that I was unconscious of the excitement I received at doing so.

My year at Dartmouth was fast-paced and showed me I had a real interest in writing and reading poetry. After graduating in 2011, I became an adjunct teacher in community colleges in Florida, teaching literature courses. By the end of the year, people were asking me if I wrote poetry—even though I hadn’t been writing anything seriously. In 2012, the year I joined Twitter, I started exposing myself to numerous poets, various poetry books, and finally started writing a lot more.

How did you come across the MFA program at the University of Minnesota?

One fateful night, I was on Twitter and the poet Sarah Crossland appeared on my feed featuring an award she won from the Boston Review. I tweeted at her acknowledging that I really enjoyed her work, and to my surprise, she responded and continued the conversation. I told her I wrote poetry and that I was interested in pursuing it further. She directed me to join the MFA draft group on Facebook to learn more about the process of getting involved with poetry. I wasn’t prepared for the opportunities this simple piece of advice would bring me. The Facebook group consisted of many people from around the world who gathered to try to help each other apply to MFA programs. Through this group, I met an amazing friend, who was about to start her MFA at Purdue, and she helped me with my writing samples as well as a suitable order of poems for my application.

While choosing which schools to apply for, I kept two priorities in mind: I wanted a fully funded MFA program and I wanted to work with a person of color. Minnesota fulfilled both these priorities and, thus, it was my first choice. I was thrilled to find Ray Gonzalez as a member of faculty. He is an iconic poet within the Latinx community, and also my MFA thesis advisor. I've taken most of my classes in the program with him. It’s almost surreal to be working alongside him because I used to teach one of his poems to my students in Miami.       

Did you always intend to write this particular book? How did your project change over time?

I knew I wanted to write a book of poems that looked at my heritage and looked at my immigrant experiences. I wanted to make the most of three fully funded years of this program, so I decided to get started on my dream book—a book that would create an impact for today’s readers. For now, the book is named Catracho; this is a slang word for Hondurans given by Central Americans, and has developed different socio-political connotations over time and history. I want this book to break down and dis-configure history.

Originally, the book was going to include three sections. I wanted these three sections to each represent one of the facts preventing me from returning back to my homeland: 1) because I was undocumented; 2) because of the destruction caused by Hurricane Mitch; and 3) because of my identity as a queer adult, that provoked violent and unwelcoming attitudes towards me. These ideas are still in the manuscript, but I now have five sections. In the past year, I made a thread of unfinished poems called “Queerodactyl” which plays on the cliché of dinosaur depictions and the violence that has been shown towards queer people. The poems are about extinction and hate crimes. I also question the space of a club and ask whether it can be considered as a sanctuary for people to express their true selves, or a space of violence, as we saw with the recent events of the Orlando shooting.

Tell me about some opportunities or successes you have experienced during the process of completing your manuscript.

I got the amazing opportunity to participate in a writer’s retreat in Tempe, Arizona. The retreat brought several Latinx poets from different MFA programs together to talk about things they normally felt excluded from, like spaces that are white-dominated. The ideas of bilingualism and having heritage, or multiple heritages, were discussed as well. The second opportunity I am grateful to have been a part of is called the Poetry Incubator. Thirty different poets were brought together from across the world to talk about the ways in which we engage our communities in writing. We talked about questions like: what ways do we help build, change, or transform our communities in the process of our writing? It was great to see that almost everyone was a person of color.

I felt that those two opportunities allowed me to remember that I’m free to write about these topics and that I don’t need permission to express my true feelings and opinions. I am a witness of the issues that are affecting my communities and I have the power to write about them. I also won two fellowships, the Scribe for Human Rights and the Graduate Research Partnership Program (GRPP) Fellowship. Through the GRPP, I did research on Honduran issues and violence.

Tell me about your chapbook and what this meant to you.

I collaborated with a fellow MFA candidate, D. Allen, to put together a chapbook to raise money and awareness for the victims of the Orlando massacre. You can read more about it here. We raised over $1,000 by selling this poem. The poem was republished on NPR and a piece in the Los Angeles Times also spoke about it. We saw this as an opportunity to give back to the community. My work is not just about writing, but also about giving back in some way. A great poet from California translated the poem, and it is also available in Spanish, which is exciting. I would love to see this poem be translated in other languages in the future.

Describe your experience working on a book in the company of other emerging writers who are doing the same.

This semester in particular has been very exciting because I finally get to see larger portions of my peers’ books. I’ve been reading fiction, other poetry, and all sorts of incredible writing. My peers and I work together; we have a think tank space where ideas are thrown around, possibilities are discussed, and we brainstorm different methods and different strategies, which helps all of us maximize our writing talents. For example, if I have an issue about how to finalize a poem or where to continue taking it, there is always a peer or two I can talk to for tips and suggestions.

Another exciting aspect of working with my peers is that the frustrations that I experience are shared, they no longer feel like they are relevant only to me. I am surrounded by a community of students all struggling to put a book together, and we all share feelings of oneness—that we’re in this together. These feelings weren’t present during my first year, and with time I’ve grown to feel like my peers are my equals and everyone is writing exciting work. We are writers as well as readers, and together we can do anything.

How has the creative writing program helped you in your work?

The program requires us to take a workshop outside of our respective genres, so we are able to stay versatile in our writing styles. I pushed myself to take a fiction and a non-fiction workshop. This offered me different writing tools and it made me realize that there are things I can’t express in poetry that I can clearly express in an essay and beautifully describe in a fictional story. I can write about things that I’ve seen in my life and talk about them differently, through different forms of writing.

This summer at the Poetry Incubator, I met the poet Patricia Smith, and she told us to remind ourselves that we are all essentially writers. We need to learn how to write a short story, learn to go back to the basics of writing, and be able to write almost anything to engage with our community. We serve our community and our writing should be aimed towards what resonates with them. We talked about being “ghettoized” into a genre; the genre does not make you, you build your own space.

What are your ambitions for your writing career?

At this point, I see a PhD in my near future. I want to work as a professor. I’ve also been writing grants, applying for fellowships, and looking for ways to stay in Minnesota. Minnesota is very supportive of writers; there is a lot of money allocated to artists.

Read another interview with Roy Guzman.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.