I first met Jesús Carmona-Robles on a Friday night. I’d just moved back to Mexico City and I was throwing a housewarming party. Jesús had just arrived from Chihuahua by bus. He was in town to hang out with our mutual friend, the ex-Chihuahuan poet Raul Aníbal Sánchez, under the pretext of writing an article about him.
The first thing that struck me about Jesús was the laugh. This thing that begins deep in his belly but jumps up an octave at the end of each exhale. It’s the laugh of Satan as a department store Santa Claus. The second thing I noticed is that Jesús is kind to everyone.
When we ran out of beer, the party moved to Barba Azul, a salsa club designed to look like hell. An ancient woman in a red pantsuit asked Jesús to dance and he obliged. As Raul watched his friend twist hand in hand with this corpse-like lady, he muttered, “look at this fucking genius,” which surprised me because Raul doesn’t usually say nice things about people. When the band took a break, Raul said it was very sweet of Jesús to dance with the Red Death.
The party dragged on for two more days, during which time I learned that for a 24-year-old, Jesús has translated an impressive list of international poets, including Tao Lin, Ahmad Shamlou, Melissa Lozada-Oliva, David Shook, Noah Cicero, and Mohsen Emadi, and has also co-edited a popular anthology of young Spanish-language poets.
When he was back home in Chihuahua, he sent me a copy of his third book, Poems to Drive Satan Away (El Graviero Editores, 2015), which was edited by the Spanish poet Luna Miguel. In order for you to understand why the following interview had to take place, I need to put a curse on you, which is why I have done my best to faithfully translate the first page of Jesús’ book:
and knows your name.
He has read the history of your country,
Your mother’s medical records,
your friends’ poems
and that letter where you love and despair.
See that man in a blue suit
standing on the roof of your house?
Six screams drive him away.
and knows your name.
Make him go away:
take this pencil and stick it in your belly.
This interview first appeared in the Full Stop Quarterly, Issue #6.
John Farley: I want to ask you a question that the American actor Wesley Snipes posed to Twitter yesterday. At what age did you realize the world you live in is not your friend?
Jesús Carmona-Robles: Maybe when I realized that the world is not my friend was when I started to have class-consciousness, but it was in a very peculiar way. Shortly before I began Poems to Drive Satan Away, my mother fell into a coma from atypical pneumonia. For three weeks I slept in the waiting room of a public hospital with the uncertainty that at any moment they could tell me that my mother died.
During those days I saw that the Mexican working class goes beyond caricature or stereotype. It’s people who scream when a doctor informs them that their relative died of an illness that maybe a better public health system could have healed. Those three weeks were an enormous lesson in empathy and solidarity. I could see and live the fear of death while identifying myself strongly with the middle class, which I always was, I am and probably will be.
My mother did not die. Now she is at home wholly healthy and lucid. But to face the possibility of death in that violent way configured much of what is in the book.
I’m very happy to hear that she is doing well. There are a lot of family members in your poems, in addition to your mother. There are also a lot of bodily fluids. A lot of you, I think. Does writing poetry make you feel vulnerable?
We are a lot of that: blood, semen, tears, sweat. The body does not let us hide what we are, evidence of that vulnerability with which we face the great mysteries of life. We are our past and therefore our family, and this, of course, I say beyond any psychoanalytic interpretation. I say it from a phenomenological point of view. Carlos Montemayor, who was one of the most important left-wing intellectuals in Mexico and was also born in Chihuahua, once said, “what I was is no more than my friends.” I want my family and my friends to be in my poems, because they are the ones that have shaped the history of my life.
I’m glad you can see the vulnerability of the author in the poem, but beyond that, I really believe the poem is an admirable act of trying to be brave. And I say “try” because the poem is that limbo, is a half built bridge that only allows you to glimpse another universe that was built by the great celebration of the unconscious. The poem demands courage, and therefore requires a deep honesty. My way of being honest is talking about things that exist and that dislocate some stability. I like to be honest, simply speaking, about the human.
Do you feel like your work “belongs” to either a Latin American or a Spanish language tradition?
I feel that my poetry belongs, beyond any geographical situation, to the deep boredom that it means to study for a career in Hispanic American literature. The human being sometimes responds to what is forbidden, and to spend almost five years reading and rereading the same monoliths of the Hispanic American tradition causes one to have a deep need to know other literatures. More specifically, those that already fall into the rancid and despicable categories, “Eastern and Western”.
I live four hours from El Paso and that has a lot of impact on the way I experience the world through language. I like American culture because I grew up with its shadow modifying and influencing the culture of my hometown. Sometimes, only sometimes, I truly believe that the Mexican of the border is a different being, but that thought falls when I travel to other parts of Mexico and I see that we all face the same fears, the same passions, the same disappointments and the same rages.
Meeting Mohsen Emadi in 2013 was a substantial development in my understanding of the role of reading and translating poetry. From that moment I was not interested in categorizing more than necessary what poetry means. From that moment my interest was to know and to be close to people who believe, see and live poetry.
Subsequently, in 2015, being in Spain meant a stroke of humility and a political awakening. That journey was a return to reality that made me realize, precisely, the answer to your question: my poetry belongs to language, belongs to the past and belongs to love.
Tell me more about those two experiences, meeting Emadi and going to Spain.
I met Mohsen at a writers’ meeting in Ciudad Juárez. We shared a van on the outward journey and we were both very anxious about the lack of nicotine and the urge to go to the bathroom. At one stop we rushed to smoke and piss, but neither of us had a lighter. I like to think that we were brothers from that moment, because we met in a moment of true despair, a moment where the formality and solemnity disappeared and we could see ourselves as who we are, human beings who have to urinate, human beings who have an addiction.
From that moment Mohsen trusted me as a friend and as a writer. I think that is invaluable, practically a miracle. Making friends today is difficult because the world seems more and more like an office cubicle. Trusting someone is difficult because absolutely everything is commodified. Everything is competition.
The things that Mohsen tells me about poetry, translation and friendship are things that have disrupted many things that I had in my mind and in my heart. These things have helped me a lot and I will always be grateful to him.
A similar situation occurred to me with Luna Miguel, editor of my last book. I knew who she was and she knew my poetry thanks to the inevitable universe of young writers that is formed on the Internet. During 2015 I traveled twice to Spain thanks to her and the hard work that El Gaviero Editores did. They trusted me and trusted my work. In her I have found a friend whom I admire in and out of literature.
In Spain I saw and lived an extraordinary furor for the poem and the written word. Maybe I saw it and felt it that way because it was something very different from what I had come to see and live in Mexico. The commitment to the poem is something very human, nothing aseptic, nothing sweetened, nothing artificial.
You mentioned before that your poems belong to time. What does poetry reveal to you about the past?
Poetry reveals the past not only of a particular person, but I feel that the poem offers us a kaleidoscopic and beautiful history of the human race. When in my poems I speak of my mother, my Spanish or Syrian ancestors, or the dead dog of my ex-girlfriend, I am talking about a cluster of complexities and mysteries to decipher. The latter is something that excites me about the phenomenon of poetry, which always – even if the academy understands the inaccessible aspects of the poem, however much civilization and culture builds bridges towards the understanding of the metaphysical – will be a luminous Mystery that will always instigate us to solve it. But what excites me most is that all this complex and tangled relationship between the poem and the human being is built on a very intimate, humble, very simple and very human connection.
I do not believe in the poet as a prophet. I do not believe in the poet as a revelator of absolute truths. I do not believe in the poet as a warrior. I think the poet is a sort of journalist of himself who uses language to flirt with beauty.
I do not like the idea of the past as an accumulation of moments that no longer exist and are gone forever. The past is a scar that grows in our body until death, which is the biggest scar. In that sense I am my past: I cannot uproot myself from what has built me and I cannot build my future.
In the poem there is no traditional and chronological understanding of time. That is boring. If life were a straight line that advances to the grave, then that would be the great triumph of frivolity. This I could understand and assume when, years after September 11, I shared with Luna Miguel a series of drawings that, by chance or causality, we both did that day, watching the news, being 9 and 11 years old.
The world and its ways of understanding can change from one moment to another. Its implications, its consequences and its causes are not staggered. They are not a row of dominoes that someone pushed from the beginning of time and then continue to fall to the present.
I can’t help but consider your work as coming out of that lineage of Latin American poets and authors who have been such insightful commenters on the subject of time. I’m thinking especially of Rulfo, Lispector, Neruda, Cortazar, Borges.
I do not think I agree with you. If any poet has revolutionized my way of understanding poetry, it was the Czech and Polish poets because they offered me precisely what I felt when I read Rulfo and Lispector at the age of fourteen. The poetic tradition of that area of Europe (an area emancipated from the great academic paradigms, aware of the meanings of war, suffering the cultural neurosis of being in a culture that is neither European nor oriental) manages to make poetry something human.
If this permeates the Spanish-American literature it must be due to a very distinctive and unique relationship with the phenomenon of death and a generalized situation of domination by absolutely hierarchical structures of government. We see death as an opportunity rather than as an end. When you have this deeply engraved in your mind – whether consciously or unconsciously – the way of seeing time is dislocated, many things cease to be linear and become an amalgam that converges and interacts with everything.
On the subject of death, I’m curious about what it was like to be a teenager in Chihuahua during the Calderon years. How that influenced your thinking and writing.
There is something I would like the world to understand: Mexico lives a war, and like all war, it orbits other things just as horrible as death: rapes, kidnappings, disappearances, total impunity, widespread terror.
When I asked my nephew what he thinks when he hears the word “war,” he answered Call of Duty. Our idea of war is that of two sides with a very clear ethical and moral position, very digestible and very understandable. Our idea of war is that of destroyed cities where there is no one but a series of military replicas that coexist between explosions and shots. Yes, war is that, but it also happens in front of us at all times. At what point did a beheading, a tumultuous rape, a mass grave or 43 missing students become something, if not routine, at least not impressive for the vast majority of the population? In Mexico there is a war that must be denounced and enunciated at all times.
I wish I could say that violence and war in Mexico has sensitized me enough to transfer all that to the poem, but no. A poem will never show the pain of a mother when she does not know what happened to her son and a poem will never make you feel the fear and anguish of a peasant when they see a narco command arriving on their land. But as my friend Raul Aníbal Sánchez says, writing poems about this is the great celebration of frivolity, but it has to be done.
Violence already permeates my relationship with language and my relationship with beauty, as I am sure it does in the great majority of my colleagues who are engaged in literature, but this must go further. If the poem is not an act of rebellion that rebuilds, denounces and clarifies, then it is only a mamotreto of words that together sound beautiful. It is not fair for me to think about every night that I have finished — really fucked up and tired — giving shape to a poem, as not having served anything.
I think we’ve spoken enough about the past for one interview. Tell me about the present and future. What are you working on?
I am writing little and reading a lot. This is not something I’m proud of. Ironically, now I work for a company that is dedicated to writing for other companies, and many times, all I want when the work ends is to be with friends or play video games.
Since the publication of Poems to Drive Satan Away I felt the curiosity to write a book of stories that now, two years later, I am about to end. It was fun to write it. I laughed a lot and could understand other ways of being disciplined with the craft of writing. I have two books of poems in the drawer, waiting for their perfect moment.
I am very interested in continuing to translate and hope, one day, to gather the courage and mental health enough to sit down and write a novel. Meanwhile, I’ve settled for doing the script for a video game. You must play Undertale. It is an example of that perfection by which narrative can reach other horizons. It’s something that excites me very much.
John Farley is a writer from Baltimore. His work has appeared previously in Full Stop and other publications.