Jesús Castillo was born in Mexico, moving to California with his parents and sister in the late nineties. In 2009, he graduated from the University of California-San Diego where he studied literature and writing. Castillo helped organize ’Lectric Collective, an art and poetry collaboration in the Bay Area, and he was a founding editor of Vertebrae. He has lived in Oceanside, La Jolla, Oakland, San Francisco, and Iowa City, where he received an MFA in poetry from the University of Iowa.
Castillo recently spoke over email with McSweeney’s editors Dominic Luxford and Jesse Nathan about his first book, Remains, the tenth collection in the McSweeney’s Poetry Series.
McSWEENEY’S: Who are you writing for?
JESÚS CASTILLO: I guess I imagine I’m writing for someone like myself: someone who needs solitude from time to time to stay sane. Who lives in the fragmented flux of the post-industrial, computerized world, and takes comfort and nourishment from books.
McSWEENEY’S: How did the form for Remains develop?
CASTILLO: When I was twenty-three, I read Ron Silliman for the first time, and that’s also when I read Ben Lerner’s elegant and instructive Mean Free Path. The way Silliman and Lerner used the book (each in distinct ways) as the measure for structuring a poem was really exciting to me, and it made me want to write a book-length poem. I was excited by the idea of finding a form that could sustain its momentum for a long time and contain potentially any subject. The serial structure seemed ideal, a long poem that advanced via self-sustaining sections that complemented each other.
I came about the poem’s actual form, which is fairly simple, sort of by chance. I guess the interesting part is that I wrote the poem on index cards. For the two years that I spent writing it, I carried a stack of twenty or so index cards wherever I went, and whenever I saw, read, or experienced something that made me think of a line, I would take out a card and fill it out, usually in one go, writing intuitively without stopping until the card was filled. Each card constituted a section. Writing on index cards meant I could carry my materials easily wherever I went. I wrote plenty of sections sitting at a desk or a table, but I also wrote many in transit, at parties, on walks, and so on. With the index cards taking care of the poem’s formal unity, I was free to just focus on filling them out. And because the cards weren’t bound, I could more easily think of each as its own separate entity or field, its own small world. And so I felt free to experiment within each one, to try out different modes of voice and formal tricks, trusting they were all part of the same poem, the same book.
I came across Jack Spicer’s lectures when I was about half way through writing Remains. I like his description of the serial poem as a poem that could virtually go on forever, or until the poet dies or gets sick of writing the poem. I think another thing that ends a potentially endless poem is when the feeling that engendered the poem ends or changes, in other words when the poet’s worldview changes significantly from the one he had when he started the poem. Then it is no longer the same poem. I think that’s more or less what happened with Remains. Had I stayed the same person, retained the way of seeing the world that I had when I started writing the poem, I might’ve kept going with it, but that didn’t happen. Maybe there is a way to build into a long poem the ability to evolve, so it can live and stay the same poem even as significant changes in its worldview occur. Or maybe you just need an expansive enough external structure that can contain multiple such changes within it. You can do it with a large enough narrative concept of course, but to do it without relying on narrative is a different feat.
McSWEENEY’S: Do you read a lot of poetry?
CASTILLO: When I was writing Remains, I was reading a lot of poetry. Right now, not so much. I don’t think it’s necessarily good to always be reading a lot of poetry though. I think even if you’re writing poetry, it’s good to read variously, not just poetry and literature. There are times for me when reading poetry feels important and necessary, like when I’m looking to learn or steal from other poets, for example, or when I want to read something that will refocus me and make me feel more present in the world, but sometimes other kinds of reading are more pressing or interesting. Or life is more pressing, and reading superfluous.
McSWEENEY’S: The style seems plainspoken. Is that accurate, do you think? And if so, how did you arrive at it?
CASTILLO: I think to a degree, that’s accurate, yeah, though there are many parts in the book that don’t sound to me like plainspoken language. It was all probably mostly unconscious. A friend once said to me that poets must use the language of their socialization. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. I wrote Remains in the style that felt most natural to me. In other words, a style I didn’t think about or make much of an effort to create. One reason I don’t like a lot of contemporary poetry is that I find it too solipsistic and cryptic. My only conscious stylistic goal has always been to not write like that. The subject matter and context of a line can be mysterious, but the feelings in it, the intentions behind it (multiple and contradictory though they may be) should be clear.
McSWEENEY’S: How connected to Mexico do you feel?
CASTILLO: I feel very connected to Mexico, but also disconnected from it in many ways. I also feel very connected to the United States, and disconnected from it in many ways as well. I imagine this is how a lot of people who were transplanted at a young age to another country feel. Mexico is my birthplace and my childhood, and the U.S. is where I’ve spent my adolescence and young adulthood. Some of the values and attitudes inherent in Mexico’s deeply Catholic working-class culture are imbedded in me. Mind you, I’m an atheist. My parents tried different churches when I was very young, but they quit trying after being disillusioned by all of them, and I wasn’t really raised to believe in religion or God. But even if you’re not religious, if you grow up working-class in Mexico, these Catholic values are in you because they are in the culture. I don’t like some of these values, and I’m trying to get rid of their influence still. The reverence for suffering, meekness, and humility, for example, is something imbedded in Mexican culture that I think can be toxic. But there are many aspects of Mexican culture that seem really healthy to me, i.e. its warmth and liveliness, the sense of community. Mexican families are more connected. The U.S. is sterile and cold compared to Mexico. Death is more graphically present in Mexico’s public imaginarium, while in the U.S. death is more abstract, depicted from a greater distance in the media, best not talked about in conversations. I’ve kept this awareness of death, but I think I lost some of the culture’s warmth after I moved to the States. I also lost some of my sense of connectedness to my extended family. I’ve kept Mexico’s fatalistic streak, which feels truer to me than the triumphalist narrative that has often informed Americans’ attitude towards the world. The history of Mexico-U.S. relations is obviously incredibly complicated. It’s one of exploitation and co-dependency, and I feel very much a product of the two countries.
McSWEENEY’S: Do you ever write poems in Spanish?
CASTILLO: I’ve written a few, yeah. They’re different. I was eleven when I moved permanently to the U.S. Since then, English has been my most exercised language. Because I’m less agile in Spanish, the poems I’ve written with it until now are simpler, but they also feel lusher to me. Rosario Ferré, the excellent Puerto Rican poet who studied in the U.S. and chose to write poetry primarily in Spanish, has written some beautiful poems about the two languages. In “Corriente alterna,” from her book Fisuras, she writes (my translation): “English is an aerodynamic tongue. / In it, thoughts shoot out / like lightning.” And later in that same poem: “[English] allows no extra weight. / Nor the decorative baroque / which in Spanish wraps itself playfully / around the words.” English, she says, “… needs to know where it’s going: / toward the nuclear fission of the I / or toward the bursting of the molecules surrounding it.” Then about Spanish she writes:
Our language is very different.
It is moist and deep,
with so many curves and meanderings that it makes us feel
like astronauts of the uterus. Fragments
of quartz, opal, amethyst,
shine incrusted in its walls
as we descend along its twilit passage.
It goes much deeper than the Canal of la Mancha,
almost as deep as the canal
through which we arrived at the world.
It’s true that your personality changes when you switch languages. Each language and each dialect within each language contains its own attitude toward life and the world. I feel very much divided between Mexico and the U.S., and between their languages. Though I’m less dexterous in it, when I’m existing in Mexico’s Spanish, I feel more grounded. In terms of how it interprets and constructs the world, Mexico’s Spanish seems the more honest, earthy language. I do like English’s aerodynamic quality. It’s colder, but as a tool with which to think and paint the world, it’s swift and resourceful. Its speed can be very precise and beautiful.
McSWEENEY’S: The main aim of poetry is to… what?
CASTILLO: Incite people to life, to use Nietzsche’s phrase. Poetry can do this in many ways: by making you see life as beautiful, or by simply making you see life more sharply (which may or may not be the same thing as beautiful); by waking you up to the strangeness, and even the fascinating ugliness, of the world; by reconciling you with your mortality; by making you feel comfortable in your solitude so that you come to cherish it and see it as precious rather than as something negative; by refocusing your mind when it has become too cluttered. All the arts can do these things, of course, though poetry is especially good at sustaining us in our solitude. It focuses you because it uses as its medium a very concentrated form of language, so it requires a very concentrated form of reading. You must inhabit yourself firmly to read a poem well. Good poetry exercises your thinking as powerfully as good philosophy does, except it uses not traditional logic to think but the logic of metaphor, which is more explosive although less precise, since it moves by leaping, flying, and teleporting, rather than by traveling more methodically on foot. This is how poetry achieves its “salutary aim,” as Milosz put it: by insisting that we be focused and present in our minds when we read it. This is also, however, another reason why it’s not always good to be reading poetry. Too much awareness and sensitivity can get heavy, even when they’re coated in musical language that leans (in general) toward seeing life as beautiful. We need rest and escape also, to stay healthy.
McSWEENEY’S: If you could give your writer-self three years ago some advice, what would you say?
CASTILLO: I don’t think I’d give myself from three years ago any writing advice. At that time, I had just finished Remains, and was essentially resting from writing, letting the manuscript sit untouched for a few months before starting the editing process. When I’d been writing Remains, I had arrived, without knowing it, at a more or less ideal state in my writing practice. I had found a task that I was excited by and believed in, and I worked at it more or less constantly, without worrying about the final product or about publication. I was happy simply to work, to have a task into which I could pour all of my creative energy and that allowed me to make full use of what writing abilities I had mastered up until then. I took joy in writing each line. Everything I read went into my writing, and everything I saw or experienced somehow or another went into my writing. I drew images, lines, and ideas from every event, considered every situation as potentially useful and instructive. I was doing this pretty much all the time. If I were to give advice to any writer, including myself today, it’d be this: find a task through which you can exert yourself fully, take pleasure in crafting each building block, and worry as little as possible about all the other things people often associate with writing (publication, competition, etc.).
McSWEENEY’S: What were the best and worst parts of getting an MFA?
CASTILLO: I didn’t really like how homogenous the poetry program at Iowa was. I think that’s something that could be improved there. Also, a lot of the talk in workshops served mostly as mental clutter that I had to work to get rid of every week. That said, some of the conversations I got to be a part of in workshops were excellent, and I’d be hard pressed to think of many places in which such conversations could be had with a group larger than two people. When you are sitting in a room with ten other people, all smart and familiar with the intricacies and challenges of writing a poem, all eager to dive into the problems of the craft, you can go very deep and get really abstract in your discussion without anyone losing the thread. When the conversations were good (and I was only part of a handful of these in the two years I was at Iowa), it felt like everyone in the room was onboard the same ship, all working together to keep the ship going in its search for insights. Whether these conversations were helpful to my writing or just entertaining, I don’t really know yet. I have a feeling their main benefit was to help me organize my own ideas about writing, which is not bad. Again, though, most of what happened in the workshops felt like clutter, and often just made me more self-conscious about writing than I needed to be. That’s how the art academy works, though. You get a lot of good resources but also a lot of opinions, and you have to learn to recognize the useful opinions, and systematically discard the rest.
The best parts of the program were pretty much everything that happened outside of workshops. One of the professors told me this when I was accepted, that the places where I’d learn the most wouldn’t be the workshop classrooms. I had a lot of free time at Iowa. Time in which to indulge my own interests. I had some good conversations with professors. I took seminars in other departments. I met a lot of interesting people and made some good friends. I didn’t have to worry about finances. I got to teach creative writing the second year I was there. When I got accepted into the program, I had just finished Remains, and had no new project on which to work yet, so I used my time to experiment and research. It was a good two years.