Ray González: Illuminating the Latinx Literary Landscape
Professor Ray González, who is retiring this spring, has published 15 collections of his own poetry, plus two of fiction, and three of essays; received two lifetime achievement awards, three Minnesota Book Awards, and a Scholar of the College Fellowship from the College of Liberal Arts; and been publicly honored by a US Poet Laureate (Juan Felipe Herrera) with a Witter Bynner Fellowship and a special event at the Library of Congress. So it’s a credit to how highly esteemed the longtime creative writing professor is that poet and former student Roy G. Guzmán wrote an article in Poetry magazine arguing that González was “criminally underrated.”
One accomplishment that should be better known, as Guzmán pointed out, is his creation of foundational anthologies focused on Latinx literature. During the 1980s, González became the poetry editor of the Bloomsbury Review. He noticed that few works by Latinx writers were being published there, with a corresponding lack of submissions. He began soliciting work from other poets. “A number of the writers I contacted were teachers,” he notes, “and they kept saying that it was very hard for them to find textbooks with writers that they knew and writers from their community that were important to study. So it just hit me one day, ‘Why not put together an anthology?’ I realized that it was an opportunity to make sure that these writers got exposure in the classroom, whether it was high school or college.” Over the next two decades, he published 12 anthologies. González, as writers Eduardo C. Corral and Rigoberto González have said, “illuminated” the contemporary Latinx literary landscape: "By showing us that we had a past and present, he was guiding us toward an exciting and certain future."
González will publish a 16th poetry collection in spring 2023, entitled Suggest Paradise (University of New Mexico Press). As he describes below, he’s also hoping to spend time in retirement working on a 300-page manuscript about another great love: rock and roll.
You joined the English faculty in 1998. Have you noticed changes in the student body or campus that seem significant?
I think there's more of a diversity of students. Also I think that now, with the internet stronger than ever, even if they're outward students and doing things in class, they also have a sense that you have to make time for your own internal social media connections. So that's almost like a new addition to today's student: Make sure your hard drive is working. It’s also helpful that it there's so much information available on the internet. Of course, I would never get away from the one-on-one interaction between student and teacher, even though the pandemic changed a bunch of that stuff for a long time.
Have you found some benefits to the online teaching model?
I think quiet students really open up more on screen. Maybe they don't feel so self-conscious. They're willing to talk more. So I’ve changed the format on a couple of classes where there's more group presentation, student presentations, less of me talking. It's also really handy. Once you get used to the different programs on your Zoom to throw things up on the screen, things move a little faster that way.
How has your teaching changed since your beginning years at the U?
I think when you first come into a writing program, yes, you've accomplished some things on your own as a writer out in the big world [laughs], and now you're in this internal space of a writing program. So you want to prove that you know what you're doing. But over a period of time I learned that, especially in poetry classes, it was helpful to also talk about some of my failures, whether it was hiding behind a weak poem that really needed a lot of work, or trying to find ways to get published. As a teacher, when you share your experiences about how you're learning things yourself, I think that means a lot to a number of the students. Especially that's true in creative writing, because everybody has their own space, their own style, their own voice. You're not going to come in as the granddaddy, know-it-all writer. [Laughs.] You're learning at the same time, and that makes you a stronger teacher.
What will you miss about teaching?
Talking to other students and faculty about things we all read. Sure, I can do it on email, and I share stuff with my friends around the country, but you never quite know how much time other people are going to have. So making sure that I keep my connections and, you know, keep communicating with people.
What advice you would give to up-and-coming poets?
Never stop reading. Always read, read other poets; also read poets you have questions about, or maybe trouble with their style—they’re not necessarily the ones you would go to first. But read and read and read.
One of the first things I say in a workshop is, “There's no such thing as inspiration, and there's no such thing as writer’s block.” The poems are not going to, you know, jump out of the sky and hit you over that head, and you're gonna have five great poems. We do this a lot in workshop: If you're having trouble with a poem or some new writing, just make lists, make nonsense lists, copy stuff out of books, respond to a poem in a book, whatever it may be. Doing those workshops over a period of years showed me that you really have to be a busybody to make some gain with your work.
That doesn’t mean that you're going to have a new poem every day. A lot of times writers tend to want to, if a certain piece doesn't work, either throw it away, or put it in the dark file where they won’t look at it for 10 years. And I say no. Most good poems quite often come from two or three other poems that the busy poet has taken apart and reconstructed into a brand-new poem. That was one of the things we really worked on in a number of workshops: Don't throw anything away. Overall, the emphasis was you need to stay busy and don't wait for poetry to happen. You have to go after it.
Could you talk about the many anthologies, especially of Latinx literature, that you edited?
I have always seen it as a political act: So many of these writers were being left out. And it was political in the sense that there are more choices for teachers; and also things that were being written about and published were finally coming out to a larger audience. The anthologies that keep staying in print are really anthologies that people want to use and read and share, especially with younger students. It's just one small aspect of the whole multicultural, I don't know, revolution if you want to call it that, from back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Now, of course, there are more opportunities for more writers of color, so a part of me always fantasizes, “Oh, the anthologies had a lot to do with this.” I hope so, along with other factors: literary activists, and more writers of color going to school, more publishing opportunities. It all comes together. Everybody from older generations created opportunities for the younger writers today.
What would you say is the most intriguing or enjoyable book you read this last year?
I've been reading a lot of books for my class. Maybe this one that we're gonna talk about next week; I think she was here not long ago: Postcolonial Love Poem by Natalie Diaz. Yeah, that's a really good book. Obviously the Native American, Latino connection to the language, and to a kind of poem that has a huge audience. A number of my friends have also been in this place, and I have off and on: How do you reach an audience that is totally different from your own culture? Will your poems in English do the job of reaching the people you want to reach? And what are you saying if you're aware that you have a huge audience? We're going to talk about that in my class: When a poet is successful, what does it change, or what stays the same?
What are you hopes for the English Department and the Creative Writing Program?
We've had a lot of really good students over the years, and many of them have gotten published. It’s a good place to be. The program has undergone a lot of changes: hiring new faculty, and now the new building, and national recognition. Because of the political issues flying all around this very nasty world, I think the program also has some realities to deal with, you know, especially with students of color, writers of color. What things do the faculty and the department need to do to make it a more open place where students want to work? Part of it also has to do with what, as young writers, what do they want out of a program? I don’t think everybody wants the same thing. I think that’s one thing you need to look at when you come into this kind of program.
What are you looking forward to exploring in retirement?
Well, I’m a music fanatic. I used to teach an undergraduate “Literature of Rock and Roll Music” class that always went really well, and I always enjoyed that. I have a couple of friends where all we do is rock and roll trivia, you know, we're album fanatics, especially artists from the ‘60s. Actually I've written a 300-page memoir called He Bought a Guitar to Punish Your Ma, which is a lyric from Pink Floyd. And the subtitle is Memoirs of an Elderly Rock Snob. It’s essays, prose poems, just different things about some of my favorite musicians in the ‘60s. So there'll be more time to listen to more music, and maybe keep working on that manuscript, or write a new one.