Professor Ray Gonzalez on his new poetry collection and a lifetime of word-work
Professor Ray Gonzalez in October published his 15th collection of poetry, Beautiful Wall (BOA Editions). The book received positive previews from NBC News, Poets & Writers, and Library Journal and is now a finalist for the P.E.N. Southwest Book Award in Poetry, which will be announced in January. As Library Journal noted of the book: "Throughout, nature becomes a breathing presence ('This is not about miracles, but of the animal/ that leaves the water in its stillness'), and several poems pay tribute to the author's nephew, a veteran, whose PTSD contributed to his death: 'I can't get it/ out of my head—/ an Army helmet as/ a deep bowl of sorrow.' . . . [P]oems lush with empathy."
Last spring Gonzalez received his second lifetime achievement award, this time the Lifetime Achievement Award in Latino Literature
from Con Tinta, a national organization of Latino writers. "Ray's generosity has helped hundreds of writers during his career as literature director, editor, and professor," said Con Tinta's Natalia Treviño in her introduction. "He has helped to hone thousands of Latino voices across the country." The first Lifetime Achievement Award came in 2002 from the Southwest Border Regional Library Association. For Gonzalez, the honors make him feel again the worth of solitary hours writing and editing: "You do have an audience, and it doesn't forget the decades of hard work." Gonzalez was born and raised in El Paso, Texas, and still spends time in the Southwest; at Minnesota, where he's been a faculty member since 1998, he teaches English undergraduates and graduate student poets in the Creative Writing Program.
It's surprising to find a book about the borderlands between the US and Mexico entitled Beautiful Wall (a sample, at Poetry Daily). Would you describe the genesis of the collection?
Beautiful Wall refers to the humane history on the US-Mexican border and how there is a certain beautiful or emotional story that takes place on both sides of artificial walls that are not going to keep anybody out. The book contains poems about the Southwest, about the Iraq war and my nephew's death as a casualty, and about influential writers and musicians in my writing life.
Do you find you are better able to write about the Southwest when you're down there or when you're up here?
It took years to admit I write stronger poems about the desert when I am far away; as a writer, if you are at home, you can't see it.
You have edited 12 anthologies, from No Boundaries: Prose Poems by 24 American Poets to Sudden Fiction Latino: Short Short Fiction from the US and Latin America. You've been the poetry editor at The Bloomsbury Review for more than 25 years. You also shepherd other writers' books through the 20-year publication project that is the University of Arizona Press' Camino del Sol series. What do you enjoy about this work?
If the creative act of writing is solitary, an editor has the responsibility to bring writers together, get their work out to the public, and find publishing opportunities for younger writers. Editing is an extension of the writing self and, hopefully, a good editor influences what people read.
In this the 20th year since its MFA degree was established, what has the Creative Writing Program accomplished that you are most proud of?
I am excited that we have so many good writers in the program and how many have gone on to publish books. I look forward to the incoming class every year.