Back in July of 2014, Octavio Quintanilla mailed me a copy of If I go Missing, his debut collection of poetry published by Slough Press. I read and reread the book, recognizing several poems from the time we’d been in workshops together at the University of North Texas. Back then, Octavio was working on a Ph.D. and I on an M.A. What I admired then, and now, is how multi-faceted Octavio’s writing is, and how hard it is to “classify.” It’s a little bit surrealist, at times, but well-grounded in what seem like actual events; the people and places are real. His work is sometimes narrative, sometimes highly lyric. The images are stark, precise, and surprising, not baroque or over wrought. He writes as if to shape the undefinable, those emotions and feelings that connect each of us to that sense of displacement most of us experience, titling poems with phrases like “I carry my destiny like a corpse.” So, instead of reviewing his book, I sent him a Facebook message to see if I could ask him a few questions to help me understand what makes his poems so elegant and forlorn. Here is our short conversation.
Cosmonauts Avenue: The narrator in If I Go Missing is a bit preoccupied with ghosts. I’m actually not completely convinced that he is not a ghost, or is not haunted by them. How does the idea of haunting or being haunted relate to this collection and, more generally, your poetry?
Octavio Quintanilla: I’d argue the narrator is a ghost, and that he is also haunted by them. I mean, if this is what we want to call his failures, his fears, his sense of loss, his longing. He keeps returning to these sorts of feelings and emotions. In an abstract way, I guess he also keeps allowing them to return. It’s endless, the cycle. And in reference to the collection [If I Go Missing], I think these elements, haunting and being haunted, are part of the narrative and lyrical impulse of some of the poems. A country that has turned to shit by cartel violence, for instance. The real danger of being kidnapped, killed, or erased from the face of the earth if you visit your parents’ country of origin. Your sick father. Your mother’s impending death. The lover that you screwed over or who screwed you over. For the narrator, these are ghosts that keep coming back.
CA: I guess being haunted by memories can also cause a kind of disorientation in the real world. Your poems are peppered with lines that disorient. Take the poem “A bar fight once in a while is a healthy sign” which states, “The trees ignore you / because you’re not a tree. / People ignore you / because you’re not a tree.” Is there something hopeless or hopeful about this kind of disorientation? Is it an act of survival?
OQ: The disorientation experienced by the narrator has to do with wanting to see things anew. Break routine, be more engaged, feel raw emotion like the type you felt when you were six or seven years old and you walked in a strange city with your parents, holding your mother’s hand and then suddenly realized that you’ve let her hand go and she’s no longer by your side. What an extraordinary feeling to become suddenly hyperaware of everything. Senses become more keen, intuitive even. Then the overwhelming fear at the thought of never finding your parents again. Of being lost. This is the sort of disorientation working in the poems. A brief journey from familiarity to defamiliarization. Which in the case of the lines you quote, may be a way of evoking that sense of hopelessness a person may feel when he or she is not seen, not recognized as a human being. Or their own failure to see their own humanity. I think it’s a positive thing to be disoriented in this way. We get the opportunity to engage in the world more fully. Which I always try to do with language. When you work with language, it’s always an act of survival.
CA: I’m interested in the relationship between, as you’ve said, “that sense of hopelessness a person may feel when he or she is not seen, not recognized as a human being,” and the themes in your work of migration, borderland landscapes, and poverty. For instance, I’m quite taken with your poem “Thieves,” which begins:
“Who cares about who gets caught
jumping over someone else’s fence?”
“Some will return the next day
and wait for you,
will sit on the doorstep,
I’m sorry, one will say, but I live a sad life.”
Is your poetry a poetry of witness? Do you feel a sense of urgency to speak where silence has become a form of oppression?
OQ: I don’t always go into a poem thinking about these things. I don’t think I ever go into a poem trying to say something about someone else’s silence. Or their oppression. Or their poverty. I begin a poem thinking about beauty and how something I have not experienced first- hand made me feel. Or how something I’ve experienced shook me to the core that it made me reach for language. That’s what essentially attracts me to poetry, more than politics, or advocacy for change. Language. All these other elements are secondary and are often implicated in the poem. For me, poems often begin with emotion, something primitive, something I want to understand, or unleash, and that I must shape with words. An impetus to document. The good poem slowly unravels its beauty. The witnessing, too.
CA: Totally awesome. You schooled me with that response! Another question, at times, your work reminds me of Tomas Tranströmer’s. Any reflection on that, or this quote?: “Two truths approach each other. One comes from inside, the other from outside, and where they meet we have a chance to catch sight of ourselves (from “Preludes”).
OQ: I really appreciate Tranströmer’s use of imagery. It tends to take us to unexpected places. Beautiful moments, as the ones you quote, that invite us to open windows, climb into ourselves, go inward, and then climb out of ourselves again. Here are a few lines from his poem, “Tracks,” translated by Robin Fulton: “As when a man has gone into a dream so deep / he’ll never remember having been there / when he comes back to his room.” I love these strange moments in poems. And maybe my work reminds you of his because some of my poems operate in the same way.
CA: I wonder if you might say more about those moments that take us to unexpected places. It’s almost as if you both have a similar way of saying: we are here, but not here, and that gives you the freedom to allow your poems to create their own logic.
OQ: I love poems that create their own logic. Poems that begin with lines such as, “If you didn’t see the six-legged dog, / It doesn’t matter.” Or, “I wiped your face off my face.” Or “A train runs over me.” Visceral, weird, imaginative. Yet, at the same time, so accessible. Like Tranströmer’s poems, which also invite us to imagine new possibilities with image and narrative, and reinforce the power of what our everyday, simple, direct language can do to engage us. You don’t always need difficult words to say, “I’m here” or to say, “I’m not here.” It’s hard enough trying to connect with others.
CA: Just one last question, any projects are you working on now that we can look forward to?
OQ: I’m currently working on two poetry manuscripts—one in Spanish, one in English. I have a working draft of the manuscript in English so I’m in the process of revising poems. The one in Spanish is half way done. I want to have a working draft by the end of summer, fall the latest. I’m also spending more time translating poetry and polishing my translation skills. I’d like to take on a translation project soon.
CA: Thanks for taking the time to answer some question. Looking forward to seeing more of your work in the future, Octavio!
Octavio Quintanilla is the author of the poetry collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014). His work has appeared in Salamander, RHINO, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southwestern American Literature, The Texas Observer, and elsewhere. He is a CantoMundo Fellow and holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas. He is a regular interviews contributor to Voices de La Luna: A Quarterly Poetry and Arts Magazine and regional editor for Texas Books in Review. He teaches Literature and Creative Writing in the M.A./M.F.A. program at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, TX. If I Go Missing can be purchased here.