In this conversation, Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué and Sebastian Castillo, both Latino poets and writers writing in the U.S., talk together about their most recent poetry books. Ojeda-Sagué’s Madness (Nightboat Books, 2022) takes the form of a fictional selected poems for a fictional poet, a gay Cuban exile who lives from 1975 to 2036. Castillo’s Not I (Word West, 2020) is a poetic play on grammar and biography, iterating sentences using “I’ with the most common verbs in English in increasingly complex grammatical tenses. Together, they speak on their shared aesthetic priorities and influences, poetic experimentation and procedure, the lyric “I,” mental health, and bilingualism. Their conversation leads them back to the shared principle behind their work—a deeply anxious, deeply pleasurable bibliophilia.
Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué: We wanted to have a conversation because I think both of us reacted to each other’s books by thinking, “damn, I wish I wrote that.” I often have this kind of loving jealousy for your work. Both of our recent books, my Madness (Nightboat Books, 2022) and your Not I (Word West, 2020), are experiments on the lyric “I” that dip their toes into persona, depression, and bibliophilia, so we thought we’d see what happens when we make them kiss. I also think of us as both terminally-online Latino experimentalists and we both spent some time in the Philly poetry community together. For those who don’t know them, your book Not I is a poetic play on a grammar book, iterating sentences using “I” and the most common verbs in English in increasingly complex grammatical tenses. And my book Madness takes the form of a fictional selected poems for a fictional poet, Luis Montes-Torres, who lives from 1975-2036. So, since your book has been out a bit longer than mine has, maybe it’s worth asking first how you feel about this book’s life in the world so far?
Sebastian Castillo: I remember us talking about something similar a while back, a few months after Not I came out. I said, “It doesn’t matter that it came out during a pandemic: no one would read it either way!” I’m joking, of course… (half joking?). I’ve been very grateful for the readers it has had, and the kind words some of those readers have shared with me. Whenever I finish a project—whether it be a book or a shorter text—I tend to not think about the life it has after it’s out. A part of me feels something like: I made this object, it’s out there now, and whatever happens to it is none of my business. Do you have any life-world hopes for Madness?
Oh I think I’m the opposite then! I’m a helicopter parent. I do a lot of re-reviewing of my work, what I feel like it’s done, for me or beyond me, where it’s gone… It’s very much like that “are you winning son?” meme. I tend not to think about audience when writing, mostly because that concept feels very demographic in a flattening way and I tend to be more interested in curating particular kinds of alienation or catharsis. But after a book is published, I’m always curious about the audience it’s found. My first book, Oil and Candle, for example, has a certain following among, like, Bay Area and NY punky-witchy queers. My last one, Losing Miami, has an interestingly younger readership than my others. My interest (anxiety?) in this is likely why the concept of reception is so integral to Madness’s entire plot.
Where did the idea for this book come from? I don’t think I’ve read anything quite like it.
Madness came from the simultaneity of two things in my life. The first is a pretty serious mental health breakdown that I experienced at the tail end of 2017, which basically looked like a lot of repetitive and intrusive thinking, and eventually led to an OCD diagnosis. The second is that I was reading a lot of selected poems at the time. I know that sounds like a sorta silly contrast, but that really was the circumstance! I can remember I was reading the Alfred Starr Hamilton, Bernadette Mayer, Larry Eigner, Jack Spicer, Richard Bruce Nugent, and Reinaldo Arenas selecteds around the time I started this. I became obsessed with how, in the case of the posthumous ones, they were both partial and totalizing, pieces but pieces of everything. (Actually, it was also around this time that I read your first book 49 Venezuelan Novels, which is similarly bibliophilic, partial, and totalizing.) So I had an interest in a form, and the only theme that I could handle at the time was my incessant, irritating thinking and slow depression. So with that, I started to sort out what became Madness: a kind of love letter to books, but a very hurting one.
Does any of that resonate with Not I? It’s formed as a grammatical exercise, which is a very you kind of concept (young Oulipian you!), but the speaker that is amalgamated and simulated therein feels very self-punishing and sad.
That does resonate with me—one of my hopes with Not I was that readers would come away with a fluid, coherence-threatening sense of the speaker’s identity. There are moments that contradict each other, non-sequiturs, accumulations that seem to develop toward a portrait, but dissolve before that picture is made clear. It’s funny you mention ‘Selected Poems’ collections: I always hate those! Something about them feels haphazard. They seem to me too incomplete. Like going to a buffett and having one bite of each thing. It’s sort of a complete meal? But your stomach won’t feel so good.
In the case of Madness, however, that elliptical, incomplete experience is thrilling. One of my favorite sections is in the middle—our sort-of-narrator-academics tell us Montes-Torres quickly wrote a follow-up to his first acclaimed collection, and it flopped. Not only is it not popular, it’s straight-up bad poetry. In its stead, they include selections from Montes-Torres’ journals. What prompted you to give this character a voice outside of his poems?
Ah, then there’s a similarity in our approach, those disrupted accumulations. But a reader doesn’t need coherence for intimacy, although we might want it, and I felt very intimately connected with your speaker. To your question, part of why the simulated selected in Madness might work better for you than the real selected is that I’m completely lying when I gesture towards something else beyond the ‘selection.’ There’s no actual oeuvre of Lu’s, just the fictional path through it that my book pretends to be. The journal section is a moment where that structure seems to rupture (we’re getting journals instead of selected poems), but clearly it’s the same, at least gesturally. What in the fiction is “journal entries” is actually in reality just large prose poems, structured as selected journal entries. There, I do stuff like play a lot with grammar and the repetition of the word “today.” It was, as you say, a way to give Lu more of a thick characterization, but I’d hazard to think of it as particularly far from the other poems.
How did you think about structuring Not I? The book’s sectioning seems incidental at first, commandeered (almost out of your hands) by a switch in grammatical tense (past tense to future tense, for example), but I feel like there’s more there, especially in the arc of the internal voice as it moves through tenses. Did you want to leave the voice’s arc to the indirect power of the procedure, or were you in more control than one might think?
When I first had the idea for the book, I was thinking about it simulating a grammar textbook someone might use to learn English, and the sample sentences within those kinds of texts. Simple present examples are by definition banal, universal. I like bread. I go to the store. I see a dog. As the tenses grow more complex, so does the sentiment behind the sentence—these types of things could only be said in more particular contexts. I’ve always found the sample sentences used in things like Duolingo amusing: I will have been eating my dinner alone. Really? So, with the structure of Not I, I wanted the things uttered by the speaker to become more tortured—both syntactically and thematically—as the book progressed.
I like that. Though your grammar book raises a question for me. Is our writing fully in English in these books unsettlingly conspicuous? I mean, my last book was bilingual, your book is structured like a language learning guide, we both are influenced heavily by Latin American sources… but both of our books seem to be almost stubbornly English. Is something going on there for you?
Oh, I have such a tortured relationship to Spanish. I’m curious to hear about yours. For me: it was my first language. When I moved to New York from Venezuela I was put in ESL for a bit, but soon after graduated out of it, and indeed, out of the Spanish language entirely. I completely stopped speaking it. At some point in my early teens I realized I had committed a grave error. You know those dreams (at least, I have these dreams) where you realize you forgot to take an important class in high school and now it’s come back to haunt you? That’s how it felt to me, losing Spanish to the degree I did, some kind of sin I committed against myself. Since early adulthood I’ve taken great pains to reintroduce fluency in my life through study and reading; it’s been rough. People often say to me, You’ll get back one day, just keep practicing—and yes, I’m comfortable enough with it, I’m fluent again, but I do think I’ve lost something that’s beyond recovery, which is the tender feeling for a language that comes with it being native to your world and brain.
Well, and perhaps this is a small comfort, that bilingualism has already structured your world regardless of fluency loss. We might also say it ruptured your world. It’s a commonplace that bilingualism gets you access to “double” the knowledge, and I like to joke that it feels more like it cuts your knowledge in “half.” I am joking, but this kind of language experience that we both have seems to put one in a particular relationship to language that I would describe as alienated rather than comparatively more intimate. Though I think both of us would describe ourselves as more familiar with speaking and writing in English, there’s something about our English that is askew.
Anyways, I think I’m attracted to your work because you bring a humor and tender emotionality to rigid, conceptual or procedural forms in a way I associate with only a few other writers, like Trisha Low, Mark Francis Johnson, David Melnick, Tracie Morris, Douglas Kearney, or Lyn Hejinian (her My Life is a clear influence for Not I). I think I once told you I thought of your work as watching someone incredibly intelligent become stupid in their sadness. I think you said that comment made you feel like you needed to go back to therapy, haha, but I promise I only ever meant it as a compliment! Would you say a bit about what you are trying to accomplish in what I think of as a contemporary and very Latino take on OuLiPo and the Language poets?
Ha! I love the Oulipo writers, but can’t say I have much truck with the Language poets, outside of a few associated writers (Leslie Scalapino and Robert Grenier probably chief among them). I think there’s a lot of writing in the world that has sometimes procedural, sometimes constraint-beholden elements, and it’s interesting to me how certain groups lay claim to a genre. You know what I mean? If we wanted to, we could cast the net of what constitutes conceptual writing quite broadly. But I think you’re right: even with the most rigidly experimental work, I’m most interested in how human things like humor and warmth emerge from those approaches. I’m thinking of, for example, Perec’s W or the Memory of Childhood. A book that has a pretty strictly defined structure, though at its heart is a way for Perec to grieve the death of both his parents, whom he lost as a child. That loss haunted him for much of his life. I read his biography last year, and there’s a marvelous section where he’s co-writing a bizarre, deformative translation of a Goethe poem that has truly wacky results. At a certain point his co-writer asks: Where does the feeling come in? The emotion? The human stuff? Perec says: you put that in at the end! But it was always going to be there anyway.
I’m a huge fan of two great Roberts I know you are a fan of too: Roberto Bolaño and Robert Glück. In his blurb for your book, the latter even mentions the former. I do think the conceit behind Madness seems, in some ways, Bolaño-esque. Or rather, a project one could imagine Bolaño pursuing. Does he loom over Madness in any way for you, or is this a mere coincidence?
Neither, in that I don’t think Bolaño looms for me, nor is it a mere coincidence. The conceit I use here is reminiscent of a lot of 20th century fiction, but Bolaño, Pessoa (who Roberto Tejada, another great Robert/o, compares me to in his blurb for Madness), Nabokov, and Lydia Davis sit a bit closer because of their interest in poetry. I’ve always said I’ll never be one of those poets that goes and writes a novel, but this poetry book does certainly carry the influence of the 20th century novel on it. I also think Bolaño sits closer because Latin American writing has really honed these kind of experiments and I was very much interested in that tradition here. But more than Bolaño, I’m actually rather influenced by someone like Manuel Puig, whose sense of genre and eroticism have long guided my work.
Speaking of, Glück I go to for sex. Is there a better sex writer among us? Or more precisely, sex as narrative. Experimental narrative at that. Jack the Modernist was a touchstone reference for Madness. I see so much of Glück and Bolaño in your work too. I also see writers I’d relate to them like Borges, Lispector, Spicer, and Robbe-Grillet there. Your recent story “The Cigarette Painter” in BOMB Magazine feels like if Borges, Bolaño, and Glück had a bookclub on Freud. It’s really fantastic.
I love that, and love all those writers (with the exception of Robbe-Grillet, whose work leaves me a bit cold!). There’s a soft science fiction element present in your book—what we’re reading is ostensibly published in 2055. Paired with that conceit is Montes-Torres’ eco-poetics and the way his poems deal with the current-and-future climate crisis. Could you speak about that a bit? Your last book, Losing Miami, addresses related ecological concerns.
Yeah, this first comes as an answer to a formal problem I had, which is that I wanted to make the book encompass someone’s lifetime, but I didn’t want it to feel like a historical novel or something, so rather than making Lu live from, say, the 20s to the 70s, I thought I could make him be born in a history that feels recent enough and then go onwards into a near future. And then I exploited the possibilities of that premise by playing a bit with by stretching some present issues into a near futural status. The climate crisis is important to this book not just because of this premise, but because Lu’s mental health issues are very much about trying to connect to a world that seems to be increasingly less and less accessible to him. The climate crisis, I think, can’t be disconnected from its existential and deeply personal fields of experience, which I think interrupt our sense of grounding in an environment that we are actively writing ourselves out of. Lu, I think, captures for me, in a way that Losing Miami couldn’t, the deeply anxious forms of intimate and environmental disconnection that manifest for people in this time. He just wants to belong somewhere, I think, and he sees his “somewheres” being taken from him by a level of systematic cruelty he can’t quite figure how to interrupt.
His voice and approach naturally shift throughout the book—his earliest publication is dated 1996, his last 2032. I’m wondering about the process of writing this voice: you’re not merely constructing a static fiction, but a person evolving in and through their poetics. I find this, as a hybrid work of poetry and fiction, fascinating. How did you make those decisions? Did the process of writing these poems change dramatically from how you would typically write a poem? I ask this because we are ostensibly reading the work of a fictional writer—though you are the one in charge of that fiction.
Yeah, this was a tough aspect of the writing, but one ripe with opportunity for building this fictional biography in an unexpected way. The most difficult thing was planning out and simulating growth in aesthetic maturity in Lu’s work. So I was attempting to make his early work feel sometimes rudimentary, but freer and less cautious, and his later work seem more studied, concerned, and architectural. I’m simulating quality, maturity, thematic development; it’s a tough balancing act. Part of the way I tried to move through this was by making the arc of Lu’s work somewhat circular. So the first “book” is very parallel to the last (short, anxious poems about nature), and the second to the penultimate (long poems in long lines about structures and creation), and so on. I thought this would let each side of the false oeuvre breath a bit and not get bogged down by an on-the-nose attempt to mimic the styles of first books and late work.
Generally, I was actually able to preserve most of the techniques I would use for writing poems in writing Lu’s. It’s not a totally solid persona, in the sense of being impermeable or incredibly “method” in its acting. My last book, Losing Miami, was actually structured similarly in that it was about six short sections, each of which encountered their own forms and themes and modes. I then arranged those sections, and in that book I braided one of the longer sections through the others. If you think about it, Madness is similar, but each of its nine sections is pretending to be a “book” by a fictional poet. Braided between them is simply the biography written by the fictional editors.
Alright, I have a last question for you, Sebastian. You are a deep lover of the novel, but as a writer you seem to have a proclivity for short forms. Your first book has a kind of structural joke/conceit in which it refers to single-paragraph prose poems as “novels,” and Not I is really devoted to the sentence or, beyond that, to brief list sections. You’re currently working on a short story collection and a novella. Is there something about these more condensed, abbreviated forms that you feel particularly accomplish things for you? You seem to really flourish there.
My answer is quite simple, and not terribly sophisticated. A lot of books already exist, and many of them are worth reading. I don’t want to take up anyone’s time unduly. The best solution to this problem is to write short books. Everyone likes short books! I like short books.
You’re terribly humble. And does it strike you as odd that you and I have a tendency to talk about other people’s books as a way of not talking about ourselves?