Benjamin Garcia Interview
Benjamin Garcia: Thank you for making time for me.
Dan Lau: Of course! But you know we’re all having scheduling issues. All of our really busy summer schedules are kicking in. A lot of Zoom calls. A lot of dates.
BG: I mean, Zoom exhaustion is real, so . . .
DL: Yeah, it is. What did you do today?
BG: Well, you caught me in between. I was cuddling on the ground with my boyfriend, who’s playing video games right now. We were deciding whether we were going to have sex or have dinner, which kind of fits into this book. Because a lot of this book is like: sex and food.
BG: A lot of what you put in your body.
DL: Yeah. There’s a lot of consumption. There are a lot of sexy parts.
DL: However, I don’t think that it’s sexy for the reader but that it’s sexy because some other person is experiencing something sexy.
It’s interesting. Thrown in the Throat moves through so many different intersectional topics. It’s particularly queer. It takes many positions and interrogates alterity in different ways. Yeah so I just wanted to frame the beginning of our conversation with the book’s threshold, the entrance poem. You’ve set up the intention to situate the reader in the context of an interrogation by considering what this language in question is. You go on to translate the language in question into other poems in this book placing the reader in the perspective of Latinx folk, the undocumented, the queer, the colonized, the erased or the ones that are in the middle of being erased right now. How can you help us make sense of all these languages in question for us?
BG: I think that the book as a whole is trying to pinpoint exactly what that “language in question” is, which keeps shifting throughout the book. The language in question series is trying to grab at the shiftiness of language as an idea. Whether that language has to do with “how do I, as somebody who has inherited a colonized history, work within English and Spanish? Finding things that are beautiful in it but at the same time things that are terrible. Finding a way of going forward with that, of not excusing it. Acknowledging it, but also making something new.
Or whether it’s our interpersonal use of the “language in question.” It’s how we interact with our loved ones. The ways that we may hurt each other without intending to or even the ways in which we police each other with what language we use within poetry. What’s acceptable and what’s considered beautiful in poetry? What has been left out and what are those factors? Who decides what language is appropriate and what’s not? So, I think the “language in question” poems are constantly searching—and, in some ways, they don’t give up searching. They don’t arrive at an answer. It’s more about questioning that language. It’s like that language has been used in criminal ways. So, like, by colonizers but also by people speaking English as an adopted language. How people from communities with accents or who don’t speak “properly” sometimes get treated like the way they use language is criminal. There are a few different ways in which I try to explore these overlapping issues.
DL: Yeah, totally, I think that it points back to language as a framework for systems of control in a way that the language in question, from my particular readings, is always from the perspective of the one who is the subject of interrogation of its usage and behavior.
It’s really fascinating how it shifts from one topic to the next so that each poem speaks to the prior and contextualizes it. You remain the subject of interrogation with respect to systems of power. Moving from that notion it was interesting to me how you go from there, a broad theoretical approach, to a place that’s very nascent, early in life. There, you describe these experiences with the speaker and parental figures. I’m curious what was the purpose of first framing us in that manner to these scenes of domesticity or at least domestic relationships?
BG: So, I think that language shapes how we think and how we view things. And that starts really early on. Before we can even become critical of it, we start absorbing stuff. I mean, we’re consuming ideas as we consume words, and we’re building these schemas in our brains based on the people that we learn them from. And until you begin questioning that, you can’t move away from it. We can see how this process begins for one of the speakers of these poems, “On the Slight Cruelty of Mothers,” for example. This mother that is at the same time very caring and gentle, is also subtly kind of abusive in ways that are so hard to notice without examination.
DL: There’s a particular type of manipulation that’s happening right?
BG: Yeah, she builds these ideas of what you should and shouldn’t do. What is allowed to you or not based on your gender. Through these kinds of interactions, we come to the ideas of what is “right or wrong” with gender at an early age, based on who we’re around and who we learn this from. So, in that poem, having a bit of tenderness. Holding, at the end, a rose that’s about to open. And saying how beautiful it would be to have a dress that’s as beautiful as a rose petal, but then saying, “that’s not for you.” That kind of beauty isn’t allowed to you because of ideas about gender that were imposed on me, and that I am now passing on to you. But at the same time, the image is of her digging a thumbnail into the rosebud and forcing it open before its time. This is a really small example, but the accumulation of these instances is part of what leads to other topics in the poem/book, such as internalized homophobia or ideas about race—larger topics that are hard to get at without something very specific to examine.
DL: Actually, I haven’t thought about that considering the context the rest of your poems create. What that means for the relationship poems. Because you move from these foundational poems that anchor you as the object being assessed and then slowly move to adolescence and adulthood where a lot of sexy things happen but those things are seen through the veils of these complications, these intersections. How do you see these intersections occurring inside these relationship poems? There’s a lot of conflict in them: monogamy, non-monogamy, the idea of marriage, whether or not relationships should be based on legal agreements, and the unfixed nature of emotions. It’s really fascinating to me. Can you speak on a few of those?
BG: Sure! The thing that comes to mind is that I wanted to push back against our instinct to want to over simplify things, whether its types of relationships that are possible—like what even is a gay relationship? As if there is only one type that exists. Or when it comes to embracing your own sexuality, that it’s not just a one time thing. That you’re constantly coming up against a new barrier that you might not have even known was there. There is a continual process of coming out. You meet new people and you might have to come out again. You don’t just do it once and it stops. The same is true for relationships. There are different kinds of relationships that are possible—and even within that same relationship, terms may change over time. Relationships aren’t always fixed and rigid things. They’re capable of changing, opening up in different ways. I wanted to show that complexity. Instead of reducing down, I wanted to expand and say hey, I can’t speak for all gay relationships or experiences or ways of being, but I can show that there is more than one. That I inhabit more than one.
DL: Yeah! I feel like those sentiments come through many of your poems. Having to reassess and resituate with every new situation. I particularly love those later poems: “Ode to the Pitcher Plant,” “Self Portrait as Man-made Diamond” is great, “Gay Epithalamium.” “Huitlacoche” is my favorite out of the book and that’s why I asked you if we could reprint it online.
Can you go about describing your process of building those two poems: “Self Portrait as Man-made Diamond” and “Huitlacoche”?
BG: “Huitlacoche” started as a precursor to the ode poems, which came right before the first ode in the book. It started off from a fragment of a thing I had written. It was a four-stanza poem and looked very different from what it is now. It was a total fail. It did not work. It only had a kernel of what the poem is now. But I knew that there was something there, so I put it away for maybe a year and a half. I’m normally not the type of person who could pick a poem back up after so long and do something new, but I knew there was something there. What got me to the final poem was probably my day job.
It’s one of the first poems that joined my work as a Community Health Specialist with my work as a writer. And it happened in this training that was trying to get us to be more comfortable with language that our clients use. One of the exercises involved saying all these words that normally, in a professional setting, you’re told that you can’t use. Words like pussy, fuck, dick, ass, you know. One of the exercises was to have different columns of words labeled action, verb, noun, and whatever else. So you’d end up with something like “I want to lick your anus” or “I want to eat your vag.” We made all kinds of different combinations, and we were actually practicing with each other (the words, not the actions). The goal was to sort of take away the stigma and to become more comfortable with our clients in using their own language, so that we aren’t thrown off in a conversation. Especially if it’s language we’re not comfortable with using ourselves. If we hear words like that, it might actually shut us down. And it doesn’t help if a client says “it hurts when he fucks me in my pussy,” and I start saying “in your genital area.” It creates this distance between us. We’re not even having the same conversation anymore, in a sense, because I’ve put this filter in the way. So when that started happening, something clicked. I need to implement this in my own life, and there was this power that came with that. I started to think, what other times has this happened to me? How else have I reclaimed language? And my day job and my writing just started to fit together. There’s a little remnant of that exercise in the poem, which is “say them out loud”—the instructions part of it.
DL: Analingus, masturbation.
BG: “Now put any two syllables together . . .” It’s in there. It became part of the process. That’s sort of the lengthy answer.
DL: That gives us a lot of insight on your process and your thinking. I don’t know that much about your community health work. Do you see those parts of your life merging? The artistic and creative portion and your social justice and employment merging often?
BG: Yes, but not in the ways that I expected. And more so in one direction. It’s usually my work in community health finding its way into my writing. I thought that when I took this job I’d start writing poems about HIV and start doing research into the history of the AIDS epidemic. I thought my writing would start going in that direction, and that’s not where this took me at all. My work started to creep into my writing based on the ideas and the philosophies that go into the work I do—all the harm reduction stuff, all the sex positivity, destigmatization—those things actually started to come into my writing. Not as a new subject, just enhancing my obsessions and the things I gravitated to anyway. I wasn’t expecting that.
I think that this book is about HIV, even though HIV isn’t that prominently figured. I think the way that it’s in there is more . . . this other philosophy that we have: “In order to reduce HIV transmission, destigmatization is really important.” You have to have some degree of self-acceptance before you might be willing to go out and get PrEP or get tested for HIV or want to get treatment (and not feel like you’re going to be ostracized). If you’re less comfortable with your own identity, you might be more inclined to experience depression, which might mean you’re less likely to be engaged in accessing medical attention. There are ways in which this book works toward that, but not so directly. More in terms of implementing these philosophies in order to increase self-understanding, acceptance of others, and being willing to question ideas you may not have known you absorbed along the way.
DL: Yeah! I think much of this book has something to do with becoming comfortable with ambiguity. I love it. Can you then talk to us about the process of crafting the poem “Self Portrait of Man-made Diamond”? This poem is wild.
BG: Right. This is a poem that, again, had a few versions before it settled into this form. It was always couplets, though. There was something about the couplet form that helped pull it forward, and I think that the couplets helped pull disparate ideas together. This poem started when I first heard that you can burn someone up and crush them into a human-made diamond. It was really fascinating from a scientific point of view. It was also fascinating from a more spiritual perspective. I don’t mean to cast judgment on anyone who chooses to do this for their family because we all relate to death in different and deeply personal ways that are totally valid. But when I first heard of this option, it actually caused me anxiety because it’s not something I would want for myself.
And being made into something so permanent was counter to what I always thought would happen to my body, which is decay and transition into something new. It’s also very different from what normally happens when someone gets cremated, which might mean being kept at home in an urn or maybe scattered somewhere meaningful. It definitely didn’t occur to me to press them and wear them in a piece of jewelry. It also terrifies me to think what if one of my family members would want to do that, and what if I lost that piece of jewelry. I would feel awful. So, there were many factors that drew me to this concept, but especially the idea of permanence vs. change.
Something that crept into the poem was carbon as an idea. Carbon when something is burned, but also carbon as an element, the relationship of carbon chains, fat and sugars, a lot of these other ideas about carbon from having a little bit of a grounding in science before I was an English major. It’s nice to have more information because you don’t know when it’ll show up or how. I struggled with the ending for a little bit. It ended on a couplet that said “I’d be an icepick for enamel; / a butter knife through frosting.” I liked the ideas in it, but ultimately these lines didn’t need to be there. It made sense even without me understanding it to end on burrs; you know the drills, but also . . .
DL: The things that are sloughed away . . .
BG: And also being cold (brrrr) or even this idea of the arctic being frozen in place, which is a kind of permanence.
DL: And yet, NOT SO!
DL: Things are changing rapidly. Thank you for taking me on this little journey. I enjoy that you could just turn a husband into my necklace or turn an auntie into a cute little tennis bracelet. It makes you focus on these bodies becoming, ultimately, adornments for the wearer in the same way the speaker is utilized through the systems of control in the language in question. It suggests that if you’re not behaving the way I want, you’re no longer a thing I desire. This relationship between desire and functional use saturates all of these pieces. The relationship is tethered to the question: How do I function to you? This seems very prevalent in the parental poems and the relationship poems and carries even further into these later poems in the collection. It’s so great!
But I also want to ask a final question. What would you like to say about this book in regard to hope and survival? There’s so much hope and examples of survival in this book. Though, it’s a very dark hope. There’s a spectrum of survival that moves from very dark survival to really bright. I’d love for you to tell me what you think is happening in your book with these two concepts.
BG: This book is not just about self-empowerment. And self-acceptance is not as easy as just choosing to be happy. I think this book is about finding validation within yourself and how you respond to factors you may not always be able to control.
In terms of fighting back and survival, the majority of this book I wrote after 2016. I felt really powerless for a while. Sitting with that is what brought out these poems. I didn’t want to continue to feel powerless. I think that when people are being oppressed, one of the tools that is used is to take away hope, to make you feel like whatever it is you’re doing is not going to help. In some ways, this is a refusal of that. I may not be able to change all of my circumstances but I can change some of my . . . I’m trying to be as accurate as I can. I think that it’s more about . . . I don’t want to just do platitudes either.
I want to offer a hope, but not a false hope. Providing answers? I don’t think that this book provides answers. My intention is to provide some tools for the reader to do their own questioning.
Benjamin Garcia was a 2019 Lambda Literary Fellow, the 2017 Latinx Scholar at the Frost Place, and 2018 CantoMundo Fellow at the Palm Beach Poetry Festival. His work has appeared in American Poetry Review, Best New Poets 2018, Crazyhorse, Kenyon Review, the Missouri Review, and New England Review. Garcia received his MFA from Cornell University and currently works as a sexual health and harm reduction educator in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
“This book is a slut. Immigrant smut, propaganda for the fag agenda. Wonderstruck, I tuck this book deep and close. Benjamin Garcia’s freaky, stunning debut decimates and salivates over language like a good switch. Moving language around. Moving language out the way. Being moved. Vers(e). How can you not love how this poet loves, how these poems hate and revenge and lurk? Twerk? Too easy. How they buck, bottom, and frot. They take lemons and let them be fucking lemons. Screw the sweet. Thrown in the Throat doesn’t hide what’s bitter. It crowns it.” —DANEZ SMITH
“Sometimes you find a book so good you wished to have written it. Better even than that is when you find a book you know you couldn’t have written, had nei-ther the emotional resources nor technical approaches to have written. Thrown in the Throat has deadly superpowers, upending all my old-school queer feelings of shame and belligerence. It gloriously stakes new territory in queerness. Camp has always been on the other side of the coin from death, but in Benjamin Garcia’s debut, fierce life demands its due. When a poet whose arsenal includes bliss, jou-issance, and adulterated pleasure commands it, you better listen. Crown him, yes.” —KAZIM ALI
“Benjamin Garcia’s Thrown in the Throat bites with acidity, sexiness, and a fearless wit that carves a fascinating world where diamonds scatter across corpse flowers and pitcher plants, the stings of a man-of-war unearth the difference between ven-om and poison, and a boy lives in a closet that transforms into the glass shell of an enormous sea snail. In the process of exposing language as a colonial tool, Garcia molds its awe and messiness into his own ammunition. He investigates what makes a son, queer and brown, in an America where the white star on a Texas flag is also ‘the open throat of a cottonmouth.’ This superb debut aims for all of our throats, and (hell yes!) we let it.” —SALLY WEN MAO
“In his inventive and daring debut, Benjamin Garcia confesses ‘my mouth has many uses: / eat, sing, bite, kiss, but most of all / insinuate.’ He gleefully tongues words; muscles syllables into sonic-rich lines attuned to public and private dictions, his-tories. I love his unrepentant and acrobatic language. This collection is furiously queer, ecstatic, bilingual, sarcastic. It refutes shame and doesn’t plea for forgive-ness. Thrown in the Throat is a spectacular debut that’ll be studied and read for a long time.” —EDUARDO C. CORRAL
THROWN IN THE THROAT will be published on August 11, 2020 through Milkweed Editions.
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