Lit Chat: Meet Roy Guzmán
The first time I met poet Roy Guzmán it was at a Great Twin Cities Poetry Reading held at Augsburg College a few years ago—I was riveted by the lyric intensity of his language and his incantatory delivery. Since then, he has continued to press into the inner and outer world and make more vivid, haunting, elegiac, passionate poetry. He is an MFA candidate in the University of Minnesota’s Creative Writing Program and is hard at work on this thesis.
I asked Roy to tell us about his dreams for himself as a poet and this question seemed to have connected with his current concerns, “I think about dreams a lot and how they are often constructs of a white supremacist imagination. I don’t know if how I attempt to respond to them falls in line with a process of decolonization, but I do know—or at least I’m aware—that writing is one method through which I choose to dream again, to re-dream, to realize that I can veer away from these kinds of questions and manage to produce work that, above all, speaks to me in a broad level: Why isn’t my book published? Why do I continue to receive rejections on my poetry submissions? How can I work faster? Whose book do I need to read so I can experience that 'breakthrough' my work needs as quickly as possible?”
One of the many things that I find fascinating about other im/migrant poets such as Roy is how we often are dealing with the notion of territories—physical, national, linguistic, psychic that can be both ancestral and collective but also deeply idiosyncratic. In the American literary landscape, we and our poems may be rendered invisible or illegible, if not illegitimate. Roy talked about connecting with others, and the rich dis/orientations of being multilingual, “Dreaming, then, is tightly connected to charting, mapping, and revealing. In that sense, I can only hope that work is building bridges with other poets and responding to issues that affect the communities in which I’m directly or tangentially a member. I mostly dream in English, but to say I dream in English is to acknowledge that I also dream in Spanish. English can’t exist without the Spanish. Sometimes, however, I dream in French. I took a few months of intensive French in graduate school and kept the fluency afterwards with a good Haitian friend in Miami. Whenever I dream in French, I shock myself. Everything becomes more estranged than how I typically see things—which are already estranged from me. So in writing, I try to catch that strangeness and find language capable of embodying how I feel to exist as an immigrant from Honduras.”
Some of the writers whose work excites me the most these days are collaborators and experimenters, and Roy is one of them. He talked about how this way of working is a way of tracing and transforming collective struggles and silences, “It also necessitates saying that I find collaborations extensions of dreams. If writing poetry is a form of dreaming, I am interested in how my words can dream with other artists’ texts, images, and music. Collaboration gives voice to the spaces we often leave untraced or silent. Mind you, those silences are often necessary in the production and transformation of everything else that isn’t silent, but projects that include more than one voice find ways to reshape me and my relationship to the realities around me. What’s the substance of those realities? Shame. Financial burdens. The queer and trans body as a political battleground, but also one of the most authentic borderlands of creativity. What might be an opportunity for you could end up leading to my disenfranchisement, to others’ death. That’s what drives my work: that urge to walk in the desert without needing to die, that celebration of loss without trauma having to vindicate it.”
So many immigrants and children of immigrants I know have been marginalized, shamed, and silenced for their relationship to the dominant language of the United States: English. Roy delved into the issues of surveillance, the risk of disappearance, and the violence of systemic racism, “Perhaps by now you’re asking yourself why I haven’t made these points in Spanish. Perhaps you’re now asking yourself what I mean when I say the error is that we’re forced to dream in white. The paradox of calling yourself a writer is falling victim to the panopticon of assimilation. There was a time when I was in ESL class and one of my schoolmates told me that I would never learn English adequately. Like me, he was also an immigrant. The tensions that try to legitimize one’s work don’t exclusively come from the outside; they can also stem from within, as a symptom of how the outside—in this case that white supremacy—instructs us to dream, chooses for us what we should aspire towards.”
One could say that living as an immigrant in the United States is a continual act of creativity, of revision, of re-seeing, as the nation-state evolves and so does its literatures. To be queer, brown, and artistic. To be a dreamer. To break silence and also the long dreams of white supremacy and colonialism. Roy shared a poetics that is both sublime and existential, “Revision is an act of dream weaving. Revision is a rupture. I don’t believe in that New Critic belief that our words are direct expulsions of the imagination, so that, in the end, it criminalizes the revision process. If the immigrant is always engulfed in the trials of revision, what revision reveals is how we can become more conscious of the coordinates of our words, in how context matters, and in how we dream.”
Urgent lines of inquiry animate Roy’s practice, “It is important for me to go beyond the construction of a poem as the outpouring of a visionary. What’s more important is what happens when the language disappears? What are we left with? What’s in the meaning? Who’s there?”
Sun Yung Shin is the author or editor of six books including two books in 2016: Unbearable Splendor (poetry/prose) and A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (anthology of essays). With the filmmaker and writer Xiaolu Wang she recently co-founded the Women of Color Artist Collective. She lives in Minneapolis and can be found on Facebook, twitter, sunyungshin.com, and agoodtimeforthetruth.com.