When I went to hear Joe Jimenez read his book, The Possibilities of Mud, at The Twig Book Shop, I was captured by the vividness of his poems and their ability to transport the listener from the book shop to “the bone-mold greyness of the shore,” to lead the listener to feel “the goodness one man can do for another man,” as he read “The poetry of the earth is never dead.” With an astute assuredness of who he is as a man and as a poet, Jimenez has a seemingly effortless ability to command metaphor and a resilient commitment to living. His book is one you won’t want to live without.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length appropriateness. By Leah Gómez .
What inspires your images?
Joe: What inspires my images is what my subconscious leads me to put on the page. When I first started writing I didn’t have any way of thinking of imagery aside from-oh, this is what I have in my head, I guess I’ll just write it down. As I started to read other peoples poems and tried to get ideas on poem making I read “The Little Book of Human Shadows,” by Robert Bly and one of the main ideas is that whatever comes from the subconscious is rife with meaning. And so, I began to think about the reoccurring images in the poems I was trying to make. In particular, in a conversation with one of my mentors in my M.F.A. program, was of the Man-of-War. A dangerous creature because it stings us and hurts us. When I was young, I remember walking along the beach, Port Aransas or Mustang Island, and I saw tons of them had beached themselves, and one of the thought I had as a child was God, I wish we could bury them instead of just leaving them there. And of course, that’s selfish because you want to play on the beach, but the other part of that is it is sad to see so many things die, or anything die, and I wanted to pick them up and take them to the dunes and have little burial services for them, which would have been the most painful experience. Writing about that, not recognizing what it meant to my life at the time, it lead me to see that these reoccurring images in my poems are exactly what I was experiencing in my life. The idea of wanting to save dangerous men, of saving people from themselves, and ultimately sacrificing myself, and being willing to be hurt for some greater good. Looking at images that way, that they come from a place, memory, and then working to unpack what that memory means in a poem.
I like to rework lines six or seven times, I want to feel like I really worked for it.
What keeps you from writing?
Having only 24 hours in day.
During the interview, I asked Joe to read A Firelight in the Marshland and to explain –
Joe: The thing I think about when I see that poem is revising. The poem didn’t look like until after three or four looks at it. Initially, the poem had longer lines. I always to go back to what I learned if it feels to long then cut it in half, then cut it in thirds then start omitting, highlighting what you think is most important then keep those images and use the other stuff as a means to help you get there. I didn’t know what the poem meant, at first. I thought I wanted to focus on fire, the whole idea of what it means to make something that creates warmth but also destroys. Ultimately, I realized it was a poem about everyone having a light within him or her, something that is redeemable, I hope. I had a lover I dated for about six or seven years who ended up taking his life, it was a matter of trying to save this person, but we all know that we can’t save people, they need to save themselves. It’s about people having light in them and as much as we try to help people kindle his or her flame it’s not going to happen unless that person wants to see his or her own light.
What value do you find in labels? In being identified as a Chicano/Queer/Poet?
Joe: I’m entirely comfortable with labels but I am also a 38-year-old man who has become comfortable with myself. I think the label I would most embrace would probably be the politicized labels. I think being a Chicano writer who embraces earth imagery, who really works the idea of questioning masculinity, of questioning violence, and making sense out of things that others might ignore. Being a Chicano writer isn’t just about some of the old school concerns of the Chicano Movement, but it is a modern concern in what it means to be a man and not be violent. It’s about queerness, about being seven years old and realizing I don’t want to kill a pig, I don’t want to kill a goat. Which is ironic because, of course, I want to eat the meat but I didn’t want to be there to cause the hurt. For me, that was a moment of change because you are not following “The Rule” of what it means to hacer hombre, to be a man. In that case, I’m fine with the labels, in any other case what people do with my labels can be weaponized. Labels can be used to hold-down, box-in, but sometimes to liberate.
Tell me more about The Goat-Eaters and Other Poems.
Joe: I took the idea of violence and what it means to be a man and what it means a man who experiences violence and a man who chooses not to use violence. But more than that, to be a Chicano who doesn’t do what culture or society expects Chicanos to do. I started writing about border violence. About my mother who was born in Nuevo Laredo. I remember thinking years ago No, we shouldn’t go it’s too dangerous. Then, I realized why wouldn’t I want to go see the place my mother was born. In that, I started thinking what makes people violent? It’s easy to just dismiss people like people who are incarcerated. One of the questions I have struggled with in life Are people just born bad? Is it true that people can be genetically predisposed to do bad things in the world? Of course, I don’t think that but I wonder it. I believe that environment impact what we value and we have those neuro-networks in our brain that train us to know what is familiar, or this is right, or this is how I should respond to this situation. I’m trying to work out some of those questions.
What do you want your readers to know about you?
Joe: A thing that comes to me is what Jodi Foster says in the movie Contact when she says, “The world is what we make of it.” And I firmly believe in that. I firmly believe that if we are good people and we do good things, if we make good, we will make a good world.