Category: Politics

The Never-Ending Original: An Interview with Suzanne Jill Levine

The Never-Ending Original: An Interview with Suzanne Jill Levine

by David Garyan and George Salis

(This interview was previously published in slightly different form on October 2nd, 2022, in The Collidescope)

September 30th, 2023

David Garyan: You’ve just finished a manuscript? It would be fascinating to hear more about it.

Suzanne Jill Levine: This is a project that’s been on the back burner for years. You know how life can be a series of detours, so it took a long time really to get to it. It’s a mix of memoir, biography, autobiography, and perhaps what they call creative nonfiction. I’m not entirely sure what pure memoir really is, though I think of it as a reflective piece on one’s life or particular aspects of a life. In the 90s, I wrote a biography of Manuel Puig, and found literary biography to be a major undertaking. Biographies are very difficult projects because they’re not fiction, though you have to write as a novelist as well as a scholar ….

DG: And a historian—

SJL: Ethnographer and journalist too. At that time, before Manuel Puig died, tragically and suddenly, I had been thinking of writing about my friendships with various writers I had translated—and looking at translation from a personal as well as aesthetic point of view, as a way of learning more about the people behind the original work and the translation. Novel writing is already always a translation as Borges says in “The Homeric Versions”; writers actually have a lot in common with the translator. The translator is basically someone who’s coming into the same project, but at a more advanced (again alluding to Borges’s humor) or different stage.

DG: That’s fantastic. Part of your response already anticipates a question I wanted to touch upon. You’ve translated monumental writers like Puig and Borges, and these are individuals you’ve also known. Do you find there’s a difference between translating friends versus strangers? Is there a difference in the way you approach a project when you’re translating someone you actually know, as opposed to someone you know a lot about?

SJL: There can be close affinities but there are many translators who have nothing to do with their authors, to avoid any authorial interference. In my case, I had the privilege to know as a very young person some of the amazing writers I went on to translate—partly because I was in New York at the time of Camelot, you know, the Kennedy era, a world that was about bringing cultures together, meaning that being an American was being someone who was interested in reaching out to other cultures.

I was a language student from early on. I began French when I was twelve, and that child was fascinated by the other persona in me speaking French. In some way I wanted to escape myself or find another me. When I went to college at sixteen, I took Spanish as a second language—second foreign language, that is—and then I spent a year in Spain, which had a great impact on my future, so immersed in the language, the culture. Because of the Cold War, Latin America was becoming very important. The Cuban Revolution was key to that globalization of interest in Latin America. So, not only reading and writing had to do with why and how I (and others) became a translator. That’s just one part of the story.

Now many of the writers are gone, the ones I worked with, the ones I knew: Cabrera Infante, Manuel Puig, José Donoso, Carlos Fuentes, Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, the Boom, and of course Borges, Pablo Neruda—they’re all gone. I have wanted somehow to bring it all back. I guess that’s what really moved me. Translation is about recovery, resurrection, and so is writing. It had to do with my own life, of course, and the things I had been through. That’s how the memoir came to be.

I think there can be many connections between writer and translator. I began experimenting with translation before these writers were my friends. I met Cabrera Infante early on. At that time, he was in the process of translating Tres tristes tigres (Three Trapped Tigers). He was in exile in London, and was working with a poet, Donald Gardner. It’s one of those “impossible” works to translate, described as a Cuban Ulysses. And Cabrera Infante did have a lot in common with Joyce, especially Joyce, the urban wanderer, and also knew English very well. He was a movie aficionado and journalist too; as a Cuban he was already exposed to a bilingual culture, which Cuba was at that time, at least in the cities. He was working on the translation of this book and was having trouble with translating spoken Cuban, a very lively, earthy, wise- guy snappy, spoken language—it wasn’t going to lend itself well to British cockney. That was one reason why he asked me to step in. The other reason was that Donald knew some Italian but only very basic Spanish, so he wasn’t quite the appropriate translator for this book written in street slang brimming with puns and allusions—and we also had to go over the whole text revising very basic mistakes.

I have continued in recent years to enjoy collaboration with younger writers, from Puerto Rico, for example, Luis Negron (Mundo Cruel: Stories), or novelist Eduardo Lalo (Uselessness, or La inutilidad). It was great working with these younger and especially women writers like Mexicans Cristina Rivera GarzaGuadalupe Nettel. But the experience of translating is ultimately a solitary experience. Yet, you’re always in dialogue, whether it’s with a person, or with the book itself.

DG: In a 1973 article comparing Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, you talk about the “need of the New World to create its myth, to create a mythical place for itself in the universe, a place that cannot be destroyed by time and circumstance.” Indeed, we often forget how ancient this New World is—the Olmecs, for example, flourished in Mexico two-thousand years before the birth of Christ. And so, Latin American literature does share many similarities to what’s been produced in the European tradition. Yet how has the trajectory of European literature itself changed as a result of its “encounter” with authors such as Márquez, Neruda, and Puig, for example?

SJL: I do believe great literature, great writing, always has a mythic dimension. With regard to Rulfo and Márquez, I was struck by the dialogue between their books—and how García Márquez is totally Borgesian, in the sense that he takes lines and ideas from writers before him, and yet he does something completely original. This shows that each new reader is a new interpreter. In some ways what made the Latin American writers finally become themselves—not only anthropologically or historically interesting—was both European and American modernism. That’s what made them come into their own, and you see Borges as a model, almost the father of the new Latin American novelists. They took what had been developed in Anglo-American writing, or in French, and made it their own, but in the end it’s something completely different. Readers continue to discover echoes relevant to their own realities or context.

DG: Talking about Borges, his reservoir of knowledge was unsurpassed. He could draw from all kinds of traditions, and he was so well-read. You rarely saw that back then, let alone today. In a 1992 essay about him and his epics, you talk about how he adhered to a “Poundian spirit of translation,” where the essence of the text, not its original language is captured. In this way, you write that “Borges (following Pound’s injunction) makes the old new.” In addition, you state that he “did not use existing Spanish translations.” Do you agree with Borges, or do you find that a translator must be more of a medium, rather than an “artist” herself?

SJL: I don’t think it’s either/or: it’s both. You have to be a medium, and you have to be an artist. You’re kind of an actor, really. You’re performing the other’s words and meanings in your own language, but basically you have to have an instinct for what’s going on in the original. True artists are medium because part of why they are great is a unique capacity for observation, their capacity for seeing something that nobody else sees. I recently saw one of the most beautiful films ever made, which is Death in Venice, adapted from the novel—an incredible Visconti film—and I decided to reread it in various translations. Michael Cunningham in his introduction to Michael Heim’s translation—basically what he says about translation and original writing is exactly what Borges said in 1932 in “The Homeric Versions”. He said the only difference between the original and the translation is that it can measure the translation against the translation. Because the original has originals. What is an original but the final draft of a series of thoughts and experiences, images, feelings, and historical information, and all that’s digested by this writer, that is, whatever idea, or image they want to capture?

What Michael Cunningham says is that translators are always preoccupied with the rhythm of sentences, the register of the language, issues of the musicality of language. Well, writers are concerned with that too. He says “sometimes I really get it, and sometimes I don’t, but what I can turn in to the publisher is the best I can do, and at some point, I have to stop.” And so, an original is never the end of something that could be. In that, Borges, who of course thought of the Poundian spirit of “making it new,” certainly said it so directly, and so brilliantly, and I’m sure many people have been stealing from him since, which is right, because he does that too!

DG: It’s kind of difficult, even then, to be original. So much has already been done and written—what else can you do?

SJL: And as John Barth and others were writing back in the 70s—the literature of exhaustion: “We’ve done it all. Well, that was fifty years ago.“ A bit ironic, maybe. But getting back to translating Borges according to some method or philosophy of translation—I first became fascinated by Borges’s what you might call “neo- Baroqueness.” As a young man he developed one of various surrealist movements called ultraísmo—there were many “ismos” in the first decades of the century. He was trying to do something new with language as poetry. That’s what fascinated me about his style, so witty, ironic, and paradoxical in the way that it so elegantly deals with words and the world. A wonderful project I did in 2010 was a sort of fulfillment of a lifelong interest in Borges: I was the general editor and also one of the translators of Penguin’s five-paperback volume spin-offs of Borges’s poetry and nonfictions, called nonfictions because there are not only essays, but also prologues, reviews, condensed biographies of writers, and so on—the nonfictions and his poetry. For this project, I had a dream team. The people who worked with me made it the project of a lifetime. Borges but also my collaborations made this a thrilling and illuminating project. Efraín Kristal, enormously erudite like Emir Rodríguez Monegal, almost a young version of Borges—the only one I know in this current generation of academics. He’s teaching at UCLA. He was born in Peru, but he’s from a European family. His family came because of the Holocaust. He was working on the poetry for us, but he was someone you could consult on so many things, because he just knew everything. And then there was Alfred Mac Adam, a close friend from many years back, also a very fine scholar, and he did the Argentina volume—if anybody knew Argentine literature who wasn’t Argentine, that was Alfred Mac Adam, who was also close to Emir, and had learned from him as well. We also had a poet who translates—Stephen Kessler. He did the sonnets. We needed somebody who knew their technique, because sonnets are challenging. His enthusiasm was inspiring and he did a superb job. I did an impossible volume called “Borges on Writing.” It’s impossible because everything Borges says is on writing. In particular I loved translating his really impossible, early pieces from the 20s. I could decipher how he throws a punch with the most complex sentences. In the essay “After Images” I realized that “God, this sounds like Milton!” And it did. It had an intense, elegant rhetorical Miltonian build-up. It was fascinating to see how some of these resonances came into English.

DG: You’re fortunate to be working in a literary tradition that hosts a diverse array of perspectives and voices, from poet-diplomats like Paz and Neruda, to the fantastic (in all senses of the word) Márquez. Yet, not only is this fascinating tradition composed largely of men, that tradition is also situated in a very macho culture. Puig’s homosexuality complicates the aforementioned sentiment, but he remains a man. How do you navigate this tension, and do you see your translations, perhaps, as an act of resistance—a woman transmitting great literature to individuals these authors could never have reached themselves?

SJL: That’s a good question. And this is perhaps the question that animated me to write the memoir especially because I am a woman—and consider women’s issues to be important to me as well as to the world. In some ways, a writer, as Virginia Woolf said, needs to be both or all sexes. You can get into any character. You can feel any possibility in yourself. But the point of the matter is, yes—at that time when I started, it was a world dominated by male writers. And when I wanted to translate women writers, publishers didn’t seem interested. For example, early on, when I was publishing Bioy Casares, I also admired his brilliant wife, the writer Silvina Ocampo. I did a few of her stories for magazines, but the authors I ultimately ended up being asked to translate were male.

There’s another aspect to it—I felt there was a certain kind of machismo that dominated, along with so-called magical realism. At the same time, there were men who were on the margins and weren’t much thought about, too eccentric. It was very hard to get them as well as women published. I thought Bioy Casares was a bit like that, because, first of all, Bioy was so self-effacing that, as his name showed up in an early story, he was considered an invention of Borges for many years. The general reader didn’t even think he was a real person, until late in his life. And what’s interesting, as you mention, is that I also identified with certain gay writers. Two of the three writers who are the basis of my theoretical book, The Subversive Scribe, are gay writers: Sarduy, who was a very difficult and interesting Cuban writer, and Manuel Puig.

As the years have gone on, I’ve been doing more work with women writers, poetry as well as prose. I did Silvina Ocampo for City Lights, and then, as I mentioned, Cristina Rivera Garza for a wonderful small press called The Dorothy Project. Also, Guadalupe Nettel for Seven Stories Press (Bezoar: And Other Unsettling Stories), a press for which I had previously done Mundo Cruel. I think one of the most important concepts that will help the world get beyond all its problems—if it ever can—is the tolerance for difference, no matter what it is, sexual or whatever. There are so many kinds of marginalities. In many ways, I’ve always felt like an outsider myself, being Jewish, I came from an assimilated family. We weren’t typical in many ways because we didn’t have money. My mother died when I was very young, my father shortly after. These tremendous losses were hard to get over and in some way I never did. I guess the way I related to the writing that I translated is that it was somehow a way of telling stories through another’s writing that were relevant to me. They had to do with feelings I had too—a sense of loss, and the exile story many of these writers had. The whole 20th century was about the condition of exile, and maybe it’s the same for this century as well.

The following question is from George Salis: How do you think you’ve grown as a translator since first publishing your translation of Betrayed by Rita Hayworth by Manuel Puig in 1971? Since that has just been reissued, I wonder if you’ve revisited it and had some qualms with a word choice here or a turn of phrase there, or were you pleasantly surprised with that early effort as a whole?

SJL: I rarely revisit my translations except when there is a new edition, such as the McNally edition of Puig’s Betrayed by RH, or Cortazar’s All Fires the Fire, reissued by New Directions, and you certainly hit the nail on the head. Qualms about word choice here and there, but mainly a pleasant sense of accomplishment about early efforts, as you say. Borges was right when he declared the concept of a definitive text to be the result of either exhaustion or religious belief. That being said, I do think I have grown as a translator; I always had good instincts even as at the young age of 23, but I also can see how life and years of practice and experience have refined and amplified my resources. I do believe literary talent develops with time and maturity, an opinion which may not be popular in today’s world.

DG: You’ve had a long and distinguished career. Over this impressive span, which book presented perhaps the greatest challenge?

SJL: It is a difficult question, one of those which would require a book, or several books. As I see it now, my many translations were challenging and remarkable adventures, each in its own way with its own particular and marvelous subtleties. It’s much more pleasurable to translate a book that you feel has a place in your life, but it can also be very challenging.

Ultimately, I believe that everything is untranslatable and nothing is untranslatable, because once you translate a book, you’re moving away from the original language, and you’re never going to replicate the original. It will be hopefully an inspiring version that makes the reader think about the genius of the original, making them want to learn that language in order to read the ur-text, as it were.

This is another question from George Salis: What is a translation you’ve read and think deserves more readers? Why?

SJL: Two translations I have read this year are Murakami’s Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche by Birnbaum and Gabriel, and Houlellebecq’s Submission by Lorin Stein. Houellebecq’s more mature work is worth reading (the earlier books were a bit much) and Stein did an excellent job creating the satirical effect. Murakami’s Underground is very moving in subtle ways, with different voices well delineated by the translators. As most readers have probably not encountered Pepe Donoso’s The Lizard’s Tale for which I received the PEN West USA Translation prize ten years ago, I am taking the liberty to recommend this book, as a partial reader of course. Its many translation challenges included finding equivalents for arcane architectural terms; based on his posthumous manuscripts, it is an intense and prescient novel about the dangers of global tourism within the confines of a medieval hill town in northern Spain. Donoso was brilliant but always one of the less visible of the Boom writers. It’s a fun read too: the characters and their passions are completely engaging.

DG: I’m interested in talking about the relationship between the writer and the text. In a 1983 article you talk about how Garcia Márquez “wrote his One Hundred Years in parody of History, as an affirmation of Fiction’s truth over History, or of History as an infinite series of contradictory stories.” And you go on to describe how Virginia Woolf, similarly, directed her “satiric Orlando against the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century historical biography.” The idea of fiction being as true or even more true than history is certainly fascinating. Philip Roth’s 2004 novel, The Plot Against America, immediately comes to mind in relation to Donald Trump. At the same time, we’re in an age where the authors you knew and translated would probably be canceled for their radical views. When selecting works to translate, do you view authors as intrinsically tied to their personalities and histories, or do you tend to separate the genius from flesh and time?

SJL: Certainly, Cabrera Infante and Manuel Puig had a very organic relationship with their works and with the political and social issues of their time, which is part of what makes them so original. Manuel Puig’s work is himself. He’s in many ways my favorite because he was a brilliant entertainer yet empathized with the world he satirized, so groundbreaking, so daring in a Latin American context. Thinking about García Márquez, writers often have political ideas which are not expressed in their writing. In many ways, that’s true of García Márquez. His was a notable case. He maintained very close ties with Castro until his death. Yet, his novels are basically very skeptical of revolution—One Hundred Years of Solitude, his most famous one, is very skeptical. In some ways, politics and writing don’t always go hand in hand. In the case of his admiration for Virginia Woolf, when I did meet Gabo (García Márquez), I asked: “Well, it seems that you mention Virginia Woolf quite a bit, what is it about her that you really like?” And he told me at the time I met him that it wasn’t Orlando, which, of course, is an extraordinary book that had an impact on many writers, Borges, for example. Orlando is a type of book where the idea of the book is perhaps better than the book itself. García Márquez said to me: “Well, you know what struck me were certain images.” It’s so interesting how writers take images and see a whole world through these images. He said: “I was struck in Mrs.Dalloway by this one scene in which she is seated inside a coach or carriage and all you can see is her waving hand as she goes by, or rather the white glove on her hand. That made me think of all the generals or dictators who go by protected in their armored cars, waving to the crowds.” A totally different image from Mrs. Dalloway, but, after all, like the dictators, she had a privileged position, emblemized in her upper-class white glove. He used the image in one of his novels—I think The Autumn of the Patriarch. Having known Bioy Casares, having known Manuel Puig, I see them in their books, and that’s a pleasure. It has really been amazing, and Silvina Ocampo too. She’s really something.

DG: What you say there is fascinating, because this ability to see the author in their books is an art in and of itself. We tend to focus on the translator as someone who sits there with a book and transcribes it, but it’s really not that way. The translator is an artist. And this is something you touch upon in The Subversive Scribe, writing the following: “If somehow we learn to de-sex the original vis-à-vis its translation, particularly in our postmodern age, when originality has been all but exhausted, if we recognize the borderlessness or at least continuity between translation and original, then perhaps we can begin to see the translator in another light, no longer bearing the stigma of servant, of handmaiden.” Indeed, many people tend to see translation as a “secondary” art, in the sense that more respect is given to novelists and poets, since they’re working from nothing, while translators always work from a source. People view novelists and poets as building wells where none existed before, while translators draw from those wells. Why is such an analogy ultimately flawed and in what way are translators not like servants or handmaidens at all?

SJL: Rather than a servant, the translator is an interlocutor—a fellow artist who is having a conversation with the work. The way Pollock, for example, communicated with his brush—that was his way of translating his physicality into the metaphysical realm of art. One thing I will say about your question is that the book I am writing now is, like the biography of Puig, a challenging and certainly longer process. For me a translation is almost like a meditation, like weaving—it takes you out of yourself which is always a good thing. The blueprint is given to me, and what I have to do is elaborate on it, and I don’t mean in the way of making it longer, but bringing it to the reader. From experience, I think it’s much more of a struggle to write an original book, but for some people, this may be the opposite. Joyce Carol Oates, for example, can write a book like it’s nothing. Maybe for her it would be a lot harder to translate books, because she would have to confine herself to the original.

DG: This idea that translation somehow isn’t an original act finds a lot of purchase with a lot of people. I don’t think that’s really the case. Thus I wanted to ask: You’ve written across a wide spectrum: Translation, biographies, and a collection of poetry. How do these activities inform your translation, and, conversely, how does translation complement your other creative projects?

SJL: The short answer is that there is a continuum between translating and writing one’s “own” poetry and prose. All these activities are one activity, are the manifestations of one who is many and many who are one. The biography I wrote of Manuel Puig was the result of years of work and of life. You mentioned the poetry chapbooks. One was a curious project, which I called Reckoning, the title of a poem by Severo Sarduy, a writer whose complex intensity and witty articulations have always inspired me to write. It was interesting because sometimes the poems I translated felt more autobiographical than the poems I wrote. Which brought home, yet again, the symbiotic relationship between original and translation.

Suzanne Jill Levine 
is the author of numerous studies in Latin American literature and the translator of works by Adolfo Bioy Casares, Jorge Luis Borges, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and Manuel Puig, among other distinguished writers. Her translation of Luis Negrón’s 2010 debut, Mundo Cruel: Stories (2013), won the Lambda Literary Award for Fiction, and her translation of José Donoso’s posthumously published 2007 novel, The Lizard’s Tale (2011), won a PEN Center USA Literary Award for Translation. Levine also edited the five-volume Penguin Classics editions of Jorge Luis Borges’s essays and poetry. She is a professor emeritus in the Spanish Department at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

David Garyan has published three chapbooks with Main Street Rag, along with (DISS)INFORMATION, a full collection with the same publisher. He holds an MA and MFA from Cal State Long Beach, where he associated himself with the Stand Up Poets. He received a master’s degree in International Cooperation on Human Rights and Intercultural Heritage from the University of Bologna. He lives in Trento.

George Salis is the author of Sea Above, Sun Below. His fiction is featured in The DarkBlack DandyZizzle Literary MagazineHouse of ZoloThree Crows Magazine, and elsewhere. His criticism has appeared in IsacousticAtticus Review, and The Tishman Review, and his science article on the mechanics of natural evil was featured in Skeptic. He is currently working on an encyclopedic novel titled Morphological Echoes. He has taught in Bulgaria, China, and Poland. Find him on FacebookGoodreadsInstagramTwitter, and at

Artículos de Lucía Scorzelli

“Las Elecciones en Argentina y su Crucial Impacto en un Mundo en Desglobalización”

Es innegable que estamos viviendo un momento de cambio de paradigma en los juegos políticos mundiales, y en este contexto, es crucial comprender el papel que Argentina desempeña en la escena internacional y la importancia de las elecciones que determinarán quién gobernará el país durante los próximos cuatro años. Las elecciones nacionales no solo determinan la dirección política y económica del país, sino que también pueden afectar las relaciones internacionales. En ese sentido la estabilidad política y la coherencia en la política exterior son especialmente importantes.

Este escenario se puso de manifiesto al observar la ubicación de los tres candidatos competitivos en las elecciones de octubre en relación con el ingreso de Argentina al grupo BRICS (Brasil, Rusia, India, China y Sudáfrica), una coalición que ha ganado influencia en medio de la desglobalización e incipiente caída de la unipolaridad.

La dinámica global ha experimentado un cambio significativo en las últimas décadas, caracterizado por una desglobalización marcada y el surgimiento de dos bloques de poder bien definidos. Por un lado, Estados Unidos y la OTAN mantienen su posición como una potencia global. Por otro lado, Rusia y China han consolidado una alianza estratégica, que comenzó a tomar forma tras la crisis financiera de 2008, cuando Wall Street sufrió un duro golpe con la caída de “Lehman Brothers”. En un intento por disminuir el impacto de la crisis, Estados Unidos buscó encauzar sus consecuencias hacia China, lo que marcó el inicio de un acercamiento entre Rusia y China en el ámbito económico y político.

Este proceso se vio reforzado con la guerra en Ucrania, diseñada para debilitar a Rusia.

En el ámbito energético, la crisis se ha exacerbado desde la guerra en Ucrania, con una competencia creciente entre Estados Unidos y China en la búsqueda de recursos como el litio, que podemos definir como “the new energy order”

Hoy, Argentina se encuentra en el centro de esta disputa debido a sus vastas reservas de litio, lo que la convierte en un actor crucial. En este contexto, es esencial comprender las propuestas políticas de los candidatos locales.

Las propuestas de Milei, que van en contra de la tendencia mundial hacia la desglobalización, plantean desafíos fundamentales. En política exterior, el rechazo a China y, en política interna, la búsqueda de la dolarización, chocan con la dirección en la que se mueve el mundo. Además, la dolarización podría tener implicaciones significativas en relación con la importancia estratégica de las Islas Malvinas. Estas islas tienen un valor significativo debido a su ubicación estratégica, ya que conectan el puerto de Ushuaia en Argentina con la región de la Antártida, que es rica en recursos naturales como gas y petróleo. La presencia británica en las Islas Malvinas ha sido un punto de conflicto histórico entre Argentina y el Reino Unido. Inglaterra se ha aferrado a su control sobre las Islas Malvinas por varias razones, entre ellas la importancia estratégica mencionada anteriormente y el deseo de mantener influencia en la región. La propuesta de dolarización de Milei plantea una preocupación adicional, ya que implica la necesidad de adquirir grandes cantidades de dólares. Esto podría llevar a un acuerdo desfavorable para Argentina en el que se deba pagar un señoraje a Estados Unidos, como explica el analista político Alfredo Jalife-Rahme, lo que tendría implicaciones económicas y geopolíticas significativas.

En el contexto de la desglobalización y la reconfiguración de las relaciones internacionales, es fundamental que un líder comprenda la geopolítica y las geofinanzas. La propuesta de Milei, al no abordar adecuadamente estas cuestiones, podría llevar a un escenario en el que Argentina pierda parte de su soberanía y capacidad de negociación en un mundo en constante cambio.

Es esencial evaluar cuidadosamente las implicaciones de las políticas propuestas por los candidatos en el contexto de la nueva realidad geopolítica y económica. La implementación de decisiones precipitadas podría tener consecuencias a largo plazo para la posición y la autonomía de Argentina en la arena internacional.

Acerca de Lucía Scorzelli

Lucía Scorzelli es estudiante de la carrera de Ciencia Política en la Universidad de Buenos Aires (UBA), interesada en el análisis de la realidad política y social. Nacida en Asunción del Paraguay reside actualmente en la ciudad de Buenos Aires, Argentina. @Luci_Scorzelli


Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: James Cagney, Poet, interviewed by David Garyan

James Cagney

August 24th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

James Cagney, Poet

interviewed by David Garyan


James Cagney’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature


DG: The publisher, Nomadic Press, which released your first book, Black Steel Magnolias in the Hour of Chaos Theory in 2018, ceased its operational activities on February 28th of this year. Two questions: How has this affected your book, along with your writing, and do you foresee more publishers closing their doors in the future, or are we headed for better days?

JC: It was a disappointing surprise hearing about Nomadic’s closure, but the pandemic changed every industry across the board and shut down many good businesses. The publisher, JK Fowler, was incredibly thoughtful to all his authors and worked to get books transitioned over to another publisher. My book is now available through Black Lawrence Press. They’re a superb, hardworking press and I’m grateful they saved a bunch of Nomadic authors from obscurity. Me too. For a minute I thought my book was going to go out of print, but I’m relieved it’s still out there. It’s foolish to attempt to foresee anything, so I offer no predictions. I watched the last COVID infected cruise ship enter San Francisco the day the city mayor shut the city down. I never could have predicted what was going to happen next. But years later things are different. Nothing remains fixed. Everything changes, we just have to remain flexible enough to move with it.

DG: Let’s stay with your first book, which has a special significance for you. In a 2019 SF Chronicle interview you discuss the background behind the collection, which centers around the major life revelation you received at the age of 19. Crafting the book, as you say in the article, was a way of writing “all of that stuff out of my system.” It’s been five years since the publication of the book, and a pandemic on top of it. Has anything changed about the way you perceive not only what you wrote, but the events themselves?

JC: That book was me assembling my personal mythology into a single unit before the stories become lost to time. I grew up an only child, so now that my parents are gone, there’s no one around for me to volley any memories and stories with. I feel as if I can’t prove anything from my life that I remember or experienced. I have photos of my parents, I’ve Googled my old house, but I can’t prove they really existed or that I once lived there. The only thing that remains is memory and memories are less than nothing if they’re not preserved. The book has made me a supportive relative to myself. Its weird going through that book now. They’re my experiences and memories, but there’s no way I could rewrite them today. Reading that book is like conversing with my past self.

DG: In a KALW radio interview with Jeneé Darden you discuss your latest collection, Martian: The Saint of Loneliness. The title encompasses so many themes and yet you reveal that the overall “title and identity happened last after everything was said and done.” Throughout the book you tackle themes of isolation, along with the sense that you’re a “person truly dropped here from another planet.” The books deals with themes of “feeling like an alien inside your body.” Questions like: “What exactly is the man I’m supposed to grow into?” To what extent did writing the book help you address those questions and do you see poetry more as a form of healing or as an art that, above all, brings awareness?

JC: I’ve utilized poetry and writing as a healing art, and always have. Being introduced to spoken word, café society of the 80’s and 90’s, I realized I could use my time on mic to speak the truth and work through some things. As a performer I felt a responsibility to be real with audiences who would attend open mics and themselves never share. They would appear, applaud, and leave. I wanted to respect them enough to be honest and tell the truth. I wanted to learn to speak without fear and poetry allows for that. As writers all of us come to the page with questions we haven’t found answers for. Sometimes, if you get quiet enough, the answers actually show up.

DG: You witnessed the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake, which destroyed the home you’d grown up in. You’ve talked about not having, in a sense, a real childhood, and if it did exist, it was quite a protracted one, as you’ve stated, given how quickly the environment forced you to mature. Can you speak about how 1989 affected you personally—at that time—and how the impact subsequently went on to affect your work?

JC: I tried to leave home and go to University. I chose a college as far away from home as I could get, because I wanted to find myself and grow up beyond my parents immediate gaze. But college never worked out. That year I went to Washington DC twice to rectify problems with my admissions, once in the spring then again in the winter, to no avail. When I came home after my second try, the quake hit one month later. It was October, and by the opening of the new year, my father would be diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him. That quake severed me from everything I thought I wanted. In a way, it forced me to engage writing. My father died, the house was being repaired, and my mother became ill from a similar cancer that claimed my dad. I gave up my college dream to work for her, and then we had my grandfather, her father, as our roommate for a while. So my life stopped for a number of years. I did In Home Care for the elderly, my remaining family, and hated it. The only thing I could practice was writing. The library and my journal was the only places I had to go. I had no one to vent to; I couldn’t complain to my mom, I didn’t have a huge number of close friends, I wasn’t dating. Plus, I just learned I was adopted so there was a lot of stress in me around that. Somewhere during those years I discovered poetry and that was hugely important in directing my creativity. Those years were hard, more than I’m sharing here, and certainly forced me to mature. That quake changed the course of my life.

DG: Your connection to California is undoubtable, and you capture the environment in a very personal way. At the same time, all the issues within the collection have a deep, insightful sense of universal relatability. This is the ultimate accomplishment for a poet—to make the personal universal. At the same time, do you perceive this with some sense of sadness—some sense of longing or hope for a world where the pain you describe wasn’t as widespread as it is now?

JC: I’m cynical. Its helpful in writing satire, but still, I’m stuck. I was in a workshop this week and they offered a prompt to write about humanity and I couldn’t think of anything positive. I hold hope for the future, but mostly I feel happy to be aging out of it. Social media fuels narcissism and I don’t see humanity getting over worshipping itself. I grew up in the church, but today God feels locked behind gates of human greed and abuse. People have been lured away from God for the robotic mirror in their hands. The only thing besides writing that helped me survive was faith, was relying on God, whom I find to be the source of all hope. But God feels like a hard sell in today’s age, and there’s people who’ll leap over this paragraph because I merely mentioned it. But I do hope people begin to remember love and veer towards that. My mother always told me God Is Love—love is the antidote pain and sadness. If we can only get people to see the word love and not conflate it with sexuality, as Americans often do. After my dad died, I found myself compelled to tell close male friends that I loved them, but they never saw the word as one of respect and openness. It was always shaded and misunderstood. Somehow the word love becomes an arrow pointing only to the crotch, not the heart.

DG: You’ve always been very active in the poetry community. Can you speak about some of the most vivid recollections you’ve had throughout the years and how reading/working with other poets has driven your own poetic development?

JC: I’ve learned a lot from a wide array of writers, many who’ll never be recognized, many who flared locally for a few years and are now long gone. I think a lot about Lee Williams, a brilliant and beautiful storyteller and poet from Oakland who got around better than I did and was in a wheelchair. I miss him and his voice greatly! I learned a lot from this club series, Above Paradise Lounge in San Francisco that maintained a fierce open mic that I considered my poetry university. I featured one night and read this rather homoerotic chain-gang story to a room full of lesbians, there in support of the co-feature. That was a great series and that room was hugely influential for me to push into writing darker, heavier more personal poems. The Afrometropolitan series in Oakland organized by poet Richard Moore (Paradise), was my first primarily African American open mic. That series was fostered by a far more politically engaged community that allowed me to engage historical poems or personal poems about family or race. That was a wonderful place to grow and practice. I started doing poetry in the years before slam, so after slam caught on, The Starry Plough which hosted the Berkeley Slam became a serious contender and was hugely influential. One night, this poet got on stage and performed what he called Wiggle Poetry. He announced his poem, then laid down on his back on stage and vibrated at different levels of intensity based on the stanzas. He spoke no words except gibberish while he shook. I don’t remember anything else about that night except for him. That crazy, distinctive poem will live within me forever. I wish I had the courage to do such a thing.

DG: What’s your favorite place in the Bay Area and have you written a poem about it?

My favorite place is near where I live, Lake Merritt. I haven’t written about it or many specific local places, really. Being local they’re sometimes hard to see and appreciate and trigger writing. Truth told, my favorite places are bookstores and record stores, with many being lost or compromised to time. Haven’t written about them yet.

DG: What’s a place in California you would like to visit and why?

I never get to do anything touristy. I currently work in San Francisco and have never visited Alcatraz. I’d like to go back to the redwood forest, but I never take the time. I could use an extensive visit to Hollywood, to be honest.

DG: Do other mediums, such as music and art, influence your work in any way?

Absolutely. I love visual art and painters are hugely influential. Robert Rauschenberg. Jean-Michel Basquiat. I’m currently a fan of Mikael Owunna and Kehinde Wiley. I honor visual artists and wish I practiced it.

DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

I just finished The Delectable Negro by Vincent Woodard, and Race and the Unconscious: An Africanist Depth Psychology Perspective on Dreaming by Fanny Brewster. Both fascinating books. There’s a great new translation of poems by Joyce Mansour which I adored, called Emerald Wounds. And I just started The Exorcist Legacy by Nat Segaloff which explores the cultural history of that film. Personally, there are some other poetry collections I’m in the midst of editing and hoping to find homes for soon.


About James Cagney

James Cagney is the author of Black Steel Magnolias In The Hour Of Chaos Theory, winner of the PEN Oakland 2018 Josephine Miles Award. His newest book, Martian: The Saint of Loneliness is the winner of the 2021 James Laughlin Award from the Academy of American Poets. It is due from Nomadic Press in 2022.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Carol V. Davis, Poet, Fulbright Scholar, Professor, interviewed by David G...

Carol V. Davis

August 24th, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Carol V. Davis, Poet, Fulbright Scholar, Professor

interviewed by David Garyan


Carol V. Davis’s poems to appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature


DG: Let’s begin with your personal experiences in Russia. While the recent invasion of Ukraine is difficult to justify, Russian culture cannot be reduced to these events alone. How have your travels and contacts with everyday Russian society changed the way you perceive this country—not just after the war, but also before it?

CD: I had first travelled to the Soviet Union as a college student after I started studying Russian and Russian literature, but it wasn’t until years after graduate school (in Slavic languages and literatures) that I went to Russia to live for a year (1996-97) and then kept going back. That first year I was a Fulbright scholar teaching at the Jewish University in St. Petersburg and was immersed in the Jewish community there.

I had naïvely assumed that it would not be difficult to make friends and be accepted as I am Jewish. I was at a Jewish university, I speak Russian and my kids were with me, but in fact, it was much harder than I had anticipated. I was finally able to make friends, but the concept of friendship is very different there and it was challenging. Of course, living in a country for extended periods of time gives one a chance to get to know it on a deeper level, but in Russia, despite speaking the language and not being there as a tourist, I was always considered a foreigner, an “other.” I found that frustrating. Although I traveled and lectured in Moscow and Novgorod, St. Petersburg was my home in Russia during periods between 1996 and 2014. In winter 2017 and 2018, I went to Siberia where I was teaching and writing in Ulan-Ude, Buryatia Republic, Siberia.

I lived under the Putin administration many times and under the Medvedev administration too. For years I felt free to speak openly with my friends in St. Petersburg as I have known them for decades and none are Putin supporters. I still hear from friends regularly, but no one is saying anything and we are all being careful. In Siberia I was always more careful in discussions with colleagues. Over the years, I watched as Putin closed down the free press bit by bit until it was shut completely. Even knowing all I do, Putin’s barbarity in the invasion was still a shock and I fear especially for my former students in Ulan-Ude. Buryatia is a very poor republic and an ethnic minority region, and therefore the number of conscripts has been very high and the number of deaths too. This city and region has been the focus of articles in the New York Times.

It was really Russian literature that drew me to Russia. My paternal grandfather was from a shtetl in Ukraine. I have a photo of him in a Cossack unit in the Russo-Japanese War, which is also very strange. He never talked about this experience. His Russian passport had the last name Uchitel, teacher in Russian. We don’t know how he got that as his father was a shochet (a kosher butcher). My grandmother was from St. Petersburg, which was unusual as there was a Jewish quota. She died when I was a baby. I did not grow up speaking Russian, nor Yiddish, the first language of my parents who were born in New York. I started studying Russian at university.

DG: Apart from having a direct knowledge of this vast country, you’ve also studied its language and literature in an academic setting. How have your studies influenced your perspectives on world literature, and has the so-called “Russia of the academy” always corresponded to the real-world considerations you witnessed in country?

CD: Sadly, I am much better read in Russian literature than in world literature, though I have tried to catch up. As in American society, there are so many different sides to Russian society, and European Russia, where St. Petersburg, and Moscow are, is vastly different from rural Russia, or where I was in Siberia. If Americans know any Russian literature, it is Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, and for many Russians, American literature is Jack London, and Ernest Hemingway, in both countries a very limited basis for understanding a society, people and culture.

DG: You’re the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Though Russia never equaled the atrocities committed by the Germans, it nevertheless has had (and, naturally, many critics, especially these days, will enthusiastically add that it continues to have) a long and complicated relationship with repression. Indeed, such actions were responsible for the deaths of imminent writers like Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel. How do we make sense of this dichotomy, which, on one hand, is the greatness of Russian culture and its capability to be greatly ruthless?

CD: Repression and brutality, have often coexisted in Russia with its culture rich in the arts. This has been and is true in other countries. Poets and writers in Russia have always been the conscience of the society, speaking truth to power and being held in esteem by many people. But having a great literature, music and art does not shield a country from barbarism.

DG: Your 2007 collection, Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg won the T.S. Eliot Prize. Two (well, perhaps three) difficult questions: Do you think the collection would’ve had the same chances of winning that prize in today’s political climate, and, given the politics behind prizes in general, what does that say about not only how, but also upon whom we bestow any given prize? And lastly: Would it be fair to say that such a collection—though it conjures a 19th century figure and deals mostly with everyday life—might be received differently today than it was in 2007

CD: I have thought a lot about the question of whether my book Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg, would have the same chance of an award and publication now as in 2007. I think not. The poems in that collection covered the period between 1996-2005 and mostly explored daily life. However, our thoughts about Russia are now grounded in Russia’s war on Ukraine. At the beginning of the war, some American orchestras stopped performing Russian music. While I absolutely agree with cutting the relationship with Putin apologists like the conductor Valery Gergiev and the opera star, Anna Netrebko, (and canceling their U.S. performances), I find problematic canceling all of Russian literature and art, but it’s complicated. This has been an issue in Israel, where there was a de facto ban on the music of Wagner for over a decade after protests by Holocaust survivors. And the issue still comes up when Wagner’s music is performed by major orchestras there.

DG: Your most recent work, Below Zero (Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2023), is a fascinating collection of poems that transcend borders—from the New World to the Far East (in this context Siberia). Can you talk about the development/inspiration behind this work and what new discoveries you made in the process of writing it—especially as things pertain to the so-called “European Russia” you had known compared with the “Russia beyond the Urals” that you’d come to discover?

CD: All my time living in St. Petersburg I had never been to Siberia, and I was happy to finally get the opportunity to do so. I was in the eastern area of Siberia, east of Lake Baikal, in Buryatia Republic, near the border with Mongolia. It is a very poor region, an ethnic minority region, where people practice Buddhism and Shamanism. Being thousands of kilometers from Moscow you feel both how vast the country is and both how little and how much the central government controls. I also travelled to Irkutsk, a multi-ethnic city from the time of the Silk Road. I visited the Jewish community there.

DG: In a 2017 Southern Review interview you talk about the difference between being bilingual and conversing in a language: “Perhaps this is the curse of a writer. For us, being able to speak conversationally in another language is not enough. That is part of my frustration living in Russia on and off for decades. There’s always that one word, that nuance, that I don’t know how to say, and I feel that frustration acutely.” What do you see as the main differences in conversational approach between the average Russian and American? For example, we’re seen as more open and friendly with strangers, but do you see these stereotypes mostly playing out in real life or is there another, deeper reality at work?

CD: I am often asked whether I am bilingual and I would never say that I am, but I speak and write Russian. My first year in Russia, I actually taught one course in Russian with the help of students who spoke English and were patient with me and I have published some essays on American and Jewish literature in Russian but that was because friends corrected my grammar mistakes. Again I would say that functioning in day to day life in a language is different than being truly bilingual and perhaps literarily bilingual.

Part of my childhood my family lived in Europe. I never thought of myself as particularly American until I moved to Russia, but I saw how much I am a product of my own culture. For example, the first year in Russia I had a lot of computer and printer problems. Friends were happy to help me, but I was uncomfortable asking for help. I did hear complaints about Americans all the time, that we smile too much and are insincere and are too casual about friendships. America is a much more mobile society. People move around a lot, go away for university, live in other cities. In Russia, if one is fortunate enough to have been born in Moscow or Saint Petersburg, you rarely move to another city. I think that is why it was more difficult to make friends because people have friends from elementary school.

DG: If you could bring one American and one Russian writer (living or dead) to the table and have them, together, draw up a peace plan for this current political crisis, who would you choose, and why?

CD: Certainly I could choose one American, and one Russian writer to talk about the history of Russia and Russian politics, but not to draw up any kind of peace plan. While I am tempted to choose poets on both sides, I would choose one poet and one historian / writer for their perspective on  the 20th c. leading up to where we are now. They are: the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who witnessed, survived and wrote through most of the 20th century in Russia. And Timothy Snyder, a contemporary American academic, who has a deep understanding of Russia, and who specializes in the history of Central and Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union and the Holocaust.

DG: At last, when all politics and even art, unfortunately, come to fail, what we have left is food—for that’s the universal experience. What’s one Russian/Ukrainian/Belarusian (or better yet, to keep very eager individuals from triggering a food war, let’s open it up and call it post-Soviet) dish you would recommend, and why?

CD: For the food I would choose borscht, which like the many varieties of its recipes, and claims for its origins, can be spelled in translation in many different ways. The most common borscht is Ukrainian, but often it is called Moscow borscht erroneously. I grew up with the Jewish version. This soup combines sweet and sour, so common in many aspects of Jewish life, food and ritual as a combination of sweetness and bitterness. Jewish borscht uses lemon juice for the sour and raisins (and sometimes a little sugar) for the sweet. It was years later, that I finally had the ubiquitous variety.


About Carol V. Davis

Carol V. Davis is the author of Below Zero, Stephen F. Austin University Press, 2023, Because I Cannot Leave This Body (Truman State Univ. Press, 2017) and Between Storms (TSUP, 2012). She won the 2007 T.S. Eliot Prize for Into the Arms of Pushkin: Poems of St. Petersburg. Her poetry has been read on National Public Radio, the Library of Congress and Radio Russia. Twice a Fulbright scholar in Russia, she taught in Siberia, winter 2018 and teaches at Santa Monica College, California and Antioch Univ. Los Angeles. She was awarded a Fulbright Specialist grant for Siberia in 2020, postponed because of Covid restrictions and now cancelled.

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series: Gary Soto, Poet, Novelist, Filmmaker, Memoirist, interviewed by David Garyan

Gary Soto

August 23rd, 2023

Interlitq’s Californian Poets Interview Series:

Gary Soto, Poet, Novelist, Filmmaker, Memoirist

interviewed by David Garyan


Gary Soto’s poems appear in Interlitq’s California Poets Feature


DG: Tell us how you began.

GS: I began not unlike how other poets and writers do, that is, by discovering the truth and beauty in literature. For me, the book was Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, which spoke to me in a way in which I identified with the characters and place. The novel, as we know, is set in the Salinas Valley with slices of the gray breezes of Monterey. The year of discovery was 1968. I was sixteen years old.

DG: You studied with Philip Levine, who, I understand, was a demanding and stern teacher.

GS: Studied? The students of the early 1970s at Fresno State didn’t study. We took classes! We piled up units to get our degree then headed out of town—laugh here, please. But about Levine . . . yes, he was an uncompromising teacher but very funny as he slashed and burned our poems. We laughed along and learned by listening. I was full of self-doubt, of course, as I was the first in my family to go to college. I took two classes from him; in all he looked at about eight poems. I grasped his intentions and was very much a driven soul. I lived for poetry, I wrote poetry, and began to publish as early as 1973.

DG: Who critiques your poetry these days?

GS: My wife is the first reader, then poet Christopher Buckley, an amigo from our college days when we were in the MFA program at UC-Irvine. He’s a slash-and-burn critic—tough on me. It’s essential to have someone like Chris.

DG: Your first book The Elements of San Joaquin was a pioneering book in Chicano literature. Would you explain, please?

GS: The early poets of el movimiento—the political movement that began as an agricultural protest—were loud and rhetorical. Instead of that, I wanted to call up place, that is, the San Joaquin Valley, my valley. It was a strange moment for me. In 1972 I was twenty, finally unfolding, awake. I began to see the valley in a new light and began to document it through poetry that was descriptive and small, small in that I wanted to document streets, rocks, fences, tumbleweeds, grapes, plums, irrigation canals, hoes, shovels, etc.

DG: You have a new book of poetry out this year. I understand that it began as a challenge.

GS: The book is Downtime from Gunpowder Press—excellent people there—and it was written in a rush from October to December 2022. During these months I challenged myself to write a hundred poems in a hundred days. In the end I wrote 116 poems. Of course, there were clunkers—lots of them that I fed happily into the shredder—but I managed to harvest 46 poems to make up this collection. Downtime was an in-your-face reply to Covid-19 when poets and writers had not much to do.

DG: Aside from poetry, you also write fiction for middle graders and young adults.

GS: I have written numbers of books for these age groups. My new middle-grade novel is Puppy Love and it’s a romantic narrative in which holding hands is about as risky as it gets. This is a sweet novel, which I admit is sort of corny. However, I have written serious and complex stories and novels for these age groups as well. Many of them have a Raymond Carver-ish understatement and sophistication.

DG: You have worked in almost every literary genre. Now you have your hand in filmmaking? What’s that like?

GS: The film is Buried Onions, which is based on my novel of the same title. It’s about gang life in Fresno, and there’s plenty of gang fighting in my hometown. For the most part the film is finished. We’re tinkering with it, thinking about the music and distribution. Fingers crossed on this project.

DG: Do you see any parallels between working on a film and working on poetry and fiction?

GS: No, I don’t. Filmmaking is about collaboration—actors, director, cinematographer, producers, sound engineer, boring things like insurance, catering, etc. Poetry and fiction are always solitary creations. You get coffee, eat toast, and get to work. It’s you and the pencil and pad—or computer.

DG: In the 2023 memoir titled What Poets Are Like, you speak—often frankly, often humorously—about the poet’s diminished status in today’s society. Is there a role for the poet?

GS: Absolutely. I’m proud of our country’s poets. Each one of us is putting to use language—fresh language—that is contrary to the language bantered about in the media. Have you listened to the songs on the radio? How about politicians summoning up their careers? I tried my best to read President Obama’s memoir and, while I admire the man, I was bored to tears by the uneventfulness of the prose. I didn’t bump into one interesting phrase. The prose reads like a long memo.

DG: Can you say anything else about What Poets Are Like?

GS: Yes, it’s out of print, which makes me wonder if poets, generally, are out of print! It’s OK to laugh here. But truthfully, we’re involved in literature and most citizens that we encounter daily have never met a published poet. We’re an oddity.

DG: You have written about the joy of meeting people.

GS: I’m not sure if “joy” is the correct word. But I think I know what you mean and will say that in my search for joy I don’t stay home a lot—well, maybe these days, in what I hope is the aftermath of Covid-19—but prior to this national emergency I was out of the house and busy going to plays, symphonies, concerts, art exhibits, gardens, lectures, historical homes. I self-published a book called Sit Still! A Poet’s Needs to See and Do Everything. I got dressed up and went out to visit the world.

DG: Can you describe one of these joys?

GS: I recall being in a foul mood, as if I had swallowed a dark cloud, and was walking around Berkeley, directionless, when a ragged convertible Volkswagen came chugging up the street. The VW stopped at the corner, which allowed me the chance to study the driver. He was ragged as his VW, gray hair in all directions, an unshaven mug. And in the passenger’s seat was a dog—a collie—that had his head tilted backward while eating an apple, eating in such a way that the apple rotated he slowly consumed it. The pooch then turned his attention to me and recognized one sad, undecorated poet. At this sighting—me, in other words—he let some of the apple fall from his chops. That apple, with doggy slobber, was a gift for me. In his way he was trying to make me happy. Now there was a joyful moment.

DG: Living Up the Street, a prose memoir, is about your childhood in Fresno. It’s also about your Mexican American identity. How would you describe this book, which appears to engage readers after nearly forty years since its publication?

GS: All poets visit childhood. All of us have small damages, some spurts of happiness, intrigue, etc. This tidy little collection is at times comic and other times not so comic. It was a favorite in composition classes as the pieces—twenty-one of them—are relatively easy to imitate. There is racial identity in the prose that, like Grapes of Wrath, spoke to the readers.

DG: People often make the case that writing comes “easy” for those who are prolific. You have written forty-plus books. Does writing come easy to you?

GS: Yes, it comes easy for me, but the revision part is often cumbersome. I have written plays—six in all, four of which have had degrees of success—and the first drafts were a cinch. However, the revisions were monsters. I’m thinking of In and Out of Shadows, a musical about undocumented youth. That took two years to write, two years for a ninety-minute production. In turn, my one-act The Afterlife took another two years. The Afterlife, by the way, is a play about teen murder and teen suicide, and it was commissioned, meaning that I had to do it since I had cashed the check that got me going. This play was performed at California high schools where there had been suicides. It touched a lot of young people. And it was a play that could have run longer except Covid-19 shut down the theaters. I recall the day it closed in Oakland, California, a gentleman my age—70—came up to me and said, “My boy jumped from a window.” What words could I offer?

DG: What are you working on now?

I finished in five weeks a middle-grade novel called Gormax. It’s been bought but won’t come out until spring 2025. It’s a novel about two boys, age twelve, who form a rock group named Gormax. They’d heard of John Cage, the classical pianist who is known for the 1953 piece 4’33” in which the maestro sat at a piano and did, seemingly, nothing. He then stood up, bowed to the audience, and created musical history. The two likeable boy rockers in Gormax imitate John Cage. They become a worldwide sensation for all of four months, then disappear. I had always wanted to be a rocker. This novel allowed me the chance to stand up on the stage. It was a fun novel to write.


About Gary Soto

Gary Soto’s most recent book is Downtime. His young-adult novel Buried Onions is being made into a film. He lives in Berkeley, California.