AN INTERVIEW WITH ALEJANDRO MORALES, AUTHOR OF NEW POETRY BOOK, ZAPOTE TREE
Professor Morales’ book, his debut collection, includes 34 poems that depict and reflect upon his childhood, family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, historical figures, mythical beings, metaphysical entities, serpents, ghosts, heroes, villains, and the dispossessed. His book examines weighty topics—like autocracy, racial injustice, and artificial intelligence—as well as good-humored, witty portraits of his wine-drinking dog, overachievers, and slacker repairmen. Its pathos and gritty depictions of social outcasts are balanced by his joyful celebrations of loyalty, love, and resilience.
Q: You are the acclaimed author of about 20 books– novels, short fiction, and nonfiction—written over a decades-long career. Why did it take so long for you to decide to write a book of poetry?
I have been writing poetry since middle school, high school, and college, through the present. At first, I wrote short paragraphs or verses about what I saw, felt, experienced. As I learned more about poetry, my poems became grounded, structured, and guided by my experiences and what I learned about the craft. This book is a compilation of poems that I wrote throughout 60-plus years of my life.
The idea to put together a collection for publication came a few years ago when I met with an author friend and book publisher and asked her to take a look at some of my poems. After a while she said, “You have enough for 3 or 4 books of poems here.” I felt the time had finally come to put my writings into my first poetry book!
Q: Why did you choose Zapote Tree as the title of your debut poetry book?
Because the zapote tree was always there, watching over me as I grew up, during good and bad times: physically there in my neighbor’s yard in my childhood with me greeting the giant, lush tree each morning when I walked out the back door of my house. As the years passed, I imagined the zapote tree “observing” my physical, intellectual, spiritual, and creative development. The power of its nurturing memory became a kind of spiritual touchstone, an inspiration, in my life.
Q: Women comprise a sizable portion of the characters in your book. Why is that, and how do you think readers will react to these varied individuals?
The women in this book all have something special about them and perhaps the readers, women and men, will see at least an aspect of themselves in these women. They are wives, daughters, mothers, celebrities, heroes, etc. The poems embody their suffering, their joys, achievements, ingenuity, spirituality, bravery, and triumphs. In my family and community, I always saw women as intelligent, powerful, mystical, and inherently beautiful.
Q: The son of immigrants, you are still very close to your Latino roots, especially your native language. Several of your poems have lines or stanzas in Spanish and a few bilingual renditions of poems. How does bilingualism affect your poems and writings in general?
I don’t consider myself traditionally bilingual. Yes, I speak Spanish; but, I’m English-dominant. The first language I heard was Spanish, and I didn’t start learning English until kindergarten. My entire education was in English. Throughout my schooling, as I learned more English words, I sadly lost Spanish words.
But this created a coalescence of both languages that ultimately became the language that I speak and write in now. If you listen to the way I speak and if you read my books, you will find a strange syntax, word usage that is neither Spanish nor English but a combination of both. I consider this coalescence unique and feel that this combining gives my works an unconventional view of the world.
Q: What was your biggest challenge generally in writing the 34 poems that comprise this volume?
Editing the poems to fewer words. A main quality of poetry is to say more with less. The process of editing is iterative and cumulatively improves the work. No matter the genre of your writing, editors help you see what you don’t see as the creator, and I was able to work with three excellent editors at three stages of development.
It took more than a year of editing to get this book ready for publication, from idea, research, first draft, multiple drafts with significant restructuring, multiple galley proofs, and finally the release of the book. This book creation process usually takes me 4 to 5 years. What I find amazing about Zapote Tree’s production is that all this was accomplished in less time.
Q: The poems are organized into three categories representing the zapote tree holistically: roots, trunk, and branches. Tell us why and how this might impact how the readers view this collection.
When I was a kid, the zapote tree represented an anchor, identity, like my house was an anchor, a cultural, linguistic religious, economic, educational identity. Since I was a kid, I knew exactly who I was. I was a Mexican kid from Simons Brick Co. Plant #3. My father, grandfather, uncles, cousins worked and lived in the Simons Company town, and I was proud of my family and where I lived.
As I grew older and advanced my education, I learned that my life had deep personally-important roots, a trunk, and branches. This symbolic grounding and strength came from my family and community. Sometimes I felt insulted by what racists said about Mexicans and the abusive verbal tags that bigots used to put me, us, down. But I never felt inferior. I knew exactly who I was, and I was able to use what I call radical irony, to treat such xenophobic individuals with respect.
Q: You often interwove poetry into your other works. What are two examples of such books, and what is the function of those poems?
I think that most of my books include a poem or a section that might be considered poetic. I use poetry in my novels and stories to reveal the characters’ emotions, how they feel about their life and the world in which they live. In these two books, both main characters are poets: Waiting to Happen and The Place of the White Heron (Volumes I and II, respectively, of my Heterotopia Trilogy). The most poetry published in a prose work of mine, however, was 14 stanzas from a 50-stanza poem, “Woman in a Box,” that I’d written for my book, The Captain of All These Men of Death. These stanzas exposed the characters’ physical and mental state in their dire situation.
Q: How can Latinx authors gain more widespread recognition for their work, more mainstream exposure?
First, I hope readers are aware that Latinx writers are often considered one-theme authors and are expected to write only from their racialized identities. However, Latinx writers are highly diverse and explore universal themes, just as authors from any ethnic background. Latinx writers—in fact, all Latinx people— are not monolithic. Yet editors, publishers, others responsible for producing books, might “pigeonhole” us more than they think.
For example, I once wrote a speculative story for an anthology of Latinx speculative stories. My narrative, which the selections committee for that book praised, was based on memory theories and was scientifically grounded. Eventually it was rejected because, I was told, “it was not Chicano enough” and the characters “didn’t have Chicano names.” These editors had put Latinx writers in an ethnic cubbyhole instead of letting us be free to write about whatever interests us. Don’t let editors like these stifle our identities and versatility.
Q: What will your readers be left feeling and thinking when they finish your book? How will your book affect them?
Zapote Tree offers the reader a better understanding of vital issues dear to our hearts and spirits, such as socioeconomic inequalities in our society; historical oppression of working-class families (“Eminent Domain”); undervaluing domestic workers (“Frida”); ravages of drug addiction (“Micqui’s Gifts….”); police abuse (“Self-Defense”). In addition, the book reveals the immense importance of women in our social fabric, the centrality of family, devotion of and to parents, and caring for one another as members of the human family. The art of poetry opens windows into our appreciation of many facets of life, the beautiful, tragic, gentle, brutal and spiritual. Zapote Tree edifies as well as reveals.
Alejandro Morales earned his B.A. from California State University, Los Angeles, and a M.A. and Ph.D. from Rutgers University. Morales is an Emeritus Professor in the Department of Chicano/Latino Studies at the University of California, Irvine. His 20 published books include: The Brick People (1988); The Rag Doll Plagues (1992); River of Angels (2014); and Little Nation & Other Stories (2014). Morales received the prestigious “Luis Leal Award for Distinction in Chicano/Latino Literature” in 2007 from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He lives in Santa Ana, California and is now working on three projects: a biographical novel, a collection of short stories, and another book of poetry. Morales is considered a pioneer in American Latino literature, being one of the first authors in the 1970s to depict harsh socioeconomic conditions of barrios and to create Chicano cultural testimonies and metanarratives. BOOK INFO: 6”x9”, 130 pages Golden Foothills Press $16.