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2020 Under Pressure

Under Pressure: Michael Torres

Image of the book cover An Incomplete List of Names alongside author Michael Torres

An Incomplete List of Names, Michael Torres

Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, California where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. His debut collection of poems, An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press, 2020) was selected by Raquel Salas Rivera for the National Poetry Series. His honors include awards and support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the McKnight Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, CantoMundo, VONA Voices, the Minnesota State Arts Board, the Jerome Foundation, the Camargo Foundation, and the Loft Literary Center. Currently he’s an Assistant Professor in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and a teaching artist with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop.

Michael Torres talks about the genesis of his debut collection, on being REMEK, and his inspirations.

Interview

Sebastián Hasani Páramo:  How long did working on An Incomplete List of Names take, from conception to publication?

Michael Torres: First book timelines are tricky to chart, I think, so I hesitate to say that I worked on this book for twelve years even though the oldest lines were written around 2008. Back then, in community college, I couldn’t have imagined that An Incomplete List of Names is exactly where I was going to end up. It makes me think of building a boat on the water: you begin with a surface that at least keeps you afloat and moving further out to sea while you design and tie together pieces. All of it happening at once. Then, when the boat is complete, you’ll realize that the boat is now equipped to take you somewhere you’ve been headed this whole time. So, for me, there was twelve years of imagining, twelve years of acquiring skill and building, twelve years of practice runs and failure—all those book contests and open reading periods coming back as rejections. And if we’re going to stick to this wild metaphor, I’d say it wasn’t until 2016 that I had a hold of the wheel and suddenly there was a captain’s hat on my head. But even then there were the winds, the weather, a crew to feed.

SHP: Where did you get the inspiration for your title?

Michael Torres: An Incomplete List of Names was first just a section title in the poem “Elegy with Roll Call.” It came to me toward the end of grad school in Minnesota, though the first draft was written on a visit home to Pomona, a week before 2016’s AWP in Los Angeles. I felt a gang of pressure about completing the thesis and getting everyone’s story from where I grew up into the book. I included in that poem a list of names of homies I used to kick it with, homies I painted walls with. I mimicked what we did as graffiti artists when we’d spray paint the names of everyone in the crew. It was an act of solidarity. It was a record. In trying to get everyone included in the poem, though, I ran into the fact that the list would always be incomplete: some of those homies died or got locked up, others I lost touch with. In this way I could not, with certainty, account for some of them. When I took a look at the entire collection I noticed that that’s what was going on throughout the collection: Naming. Preserving (or at least trying, desperately, to preserve) the stories attached to those names.

SHP: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure?

MT: I’ve more or less kept up a writing ritual created in grad school so that I don’t necessarily need a deadline. However, I like to think I’m good under the pressure of a deadline because I hate not getting done what I said I’d do. Deadlines helps me get into the zone, if you will. When I was submitting the manuscript for consideration, every deadline was a chance to revise/re-imagine/re-evaluate the manuscript. I submitted it forty-plus times over four years before it got picked up.

I once used the Gloria E. Anzaldúa Poetry Prize deadline to write a whole bunch of new work because at the time I thought the first book was done. The deadline gave me a summer to create a chapbook’s worth of something different than everything the book was doing, which excited me. I wanted to learn how to be independent of that first manuscript. All this to say, I wrote a crappy experimental chapbook that was ultimately rejected. Over the next year, though, I took those crappy pieces and created the All-American Mexican series, which are among my favorite poems that I’ve written. They seemed unlike the book but when I threw them in the mix, it made the collection more muscular, more layered.

SHP: Besides writing, what other daily rituals do you participate in or feel are important to your writing?

MT: I’m a runner. Outdoors. All-season. On days I don’t make time for a good, long run, I at least go for a walk. Both have the ability to create a clearing in my mind where I can work on a piece on a sort of meditative level. Another thing I do—and maybe this is not as much ritual as it is tactic—is an imagined interview. When I’m struggling with a piece, I go outside, and in my mind conduct an interview focused on that piece. The invented interviewer asks questions like: How did you come to write this piece? Or, what is it you were trying to say? Or something like: How did you arrive at this ending? Beginning? This particular image? While I do worry about demystifying a piece, or like, “figuring it out” before it can fully develop on its own, I enter these interviews wanting to answer in earnest and a willingness to think through that answer. The process of this thinking-through had often helped move the piece along.

SHP: What is a favorite piece of advice from a mentor of yours? How did it help you with your writing?

John Brantingham, professor, mentor, and who also advised the creative writing club at my community college, told me that when submitting work for consideration to “Send it, and imagine it getting lost in the mail.” This was snail mail days, but even as we moved into the digital era and Submittable came around, I found this tip helpful. It was a sort of compass that always pointed me back to the work, the writing of poems, which was the most important part.

In The Bread of Time, Philip Levine (whose work I was put onto by my mentor, poet Christopher Buckley) talks about the lasting advice his mentor John Berryman gave him: “You should always be trying to write a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you’re merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.”

I love this quote because it simultaneously inspires me to grow but also keeps me in check so that I don’t travel in circles in my writing. Plus, as I’ve come to understand it, it makes me feel more comfortable with failure and failure’s lessons.

SHP: Do you keep a journal, or do you prefer to write on anything you can find?

MT: Damn, I love this question because it reminds me of the different ways I’ve tried to save notes and lines from being lost to short-term memory. You ever get a dope line when you’re about to fall sleep and you think: well, it’s so good how can I forget it? Then you wake up pissed because it’s gone. That’s why I write mostly on my phone now. I text myself. For a long while I wrote in mini notepads I bought in packs of three at the Dollar Tree. When I first started taking myself serious as a writer I was working in retail at the mall. I would come home and pull from my pockets folded-up receipt tape I tore off at the register and filled with notes and images that came to me while I stocking shelves.

SHP: Who are you crushing on art-wise?

MT: The upcoming release of my first collection has made me super reflective of home, so I’ve been getting into and connecting with SoCal Latinx visual artists lately, specifically my homie Soledad Villa, and Jacqueline Valenzuela, whose work Soledad put me on to. We’re actually collaborating, and I’m commissioning them to do work in response to An Incomplete List of Names. I’m really excited about these projects because they are all about home. Both artists know the language in the book, can recognize the people in the stories being told. Each artist has their own, distinct style but one I can identify as Cali as well. And maybe that says something about what I want the collection to do, who I want it to reach. In a way, the book is a sort of vessel for my homecoming.

SHP: If given the choice to spend 24 hours in a museum creating something, what medium would you choose?

MT: For some reason “museum” sets me up to be intimidated. Like, I’d have the feeling that if I didn’t come up with some dope shit for the museum, I shouldn’t do it at all. And that’s interesting because if you put me in that museum, I’d want to rebel against that (perceived) expectation. Just to fuck around, I’d probably enjoy doing some sort of mixed media installation that just takes up a lot of space. Particleboard. Cardboard. Nail gun and rope. Yeah, I’d build something that barely fits in the room, but which can also be folded in such a way that I can walk out with it under my arm once the exhibit is over.

SHP: You begin your book with an epigraph by Larry Levis. Could you talk a little bit about your literary influences, like Larry Levis, and how they inform the book?

MT: I believe it was Sun Yung Shin, while I was part of the Loft Mentor Series, who posed the question in the context of ancestry. I liked that idea: who are my literary ancestors? It offered this connection to a larger web of history. It allowed me to see myself as part of that web as well. It made sense, too, on the level that imitation was a way for the student-of-writing me to try to be in conversation with them and their work.

So yes, Larry Levis for his ability to leave and return to a subject, idea, or image. For how he could turn the lens and address the reader; or change the subject completely without confusing the reader. For how he got me to love a long, winding poem. So much of my book attempts those things. Then there’s Octavio Paz and Labyrinth of Solitude, an essay collection, but still something that spoke to me about masculinity at a time in grad school when I was just realizing that that’s where I was headed. Also, Sonia Sanchez (Homegirls and Handgrenades especially) for her compelling poetic narratives in pieces like “Norma” that allowed me to write some of the book’s “Pachuco’s Grandson” series.

So many others: Philip Levine. Tracy K. Smith. Lorna Dee Cervantes. Terrance Hayes. All of them are in the book.

And if you want me to be really real, Bukowski’s problematic-ass, as I was introduced to him in the stereotypical, old-white-professor-teaching-an-introduction-to-poetry-class fashion early on in my education. Regardless, Bukowski’s work was one of the first times I saw poems made of words like fuck and shit, and not just thee, thou and dost. It sucks that I was already in my twenties when this happened, but it happened. And it was a door I could walk through with words like homies and this foo. So he’s in there too. Still, I suppose it’s good not to deny him. If he is indeed an ancestor of my work then I’m responsible for that as well.

SHP: If you could describe An Incomplete List of Names in three words, what would they be? Why?

MT: “That foo, REMEK.”

In grad school, one of my professors suggested the manuscript’s title be “Love Letter.” I don’t know why that surprised me at first. It was true, ultimately. I’d written a book about the homies, for the homies. And it was love: to focus and pay attention to and ask questions about our relationship, often critically, but with the sense that you really care about what the answers would be. All that I feel for them is in the book—having grown up with them, having left home. So, when I say “That foo, REMEK,” it’s because the book declares it, grapples with it. I can see my homie Jesse saying it, nodding in the direction of the house where I grew up.

SHP: Finally, we published your hybrid piece “On Being REMEK” as one of the winners of our contest a few years ago and it features as a name in your book. Could you tell a little story about REMEK?

MT: Seventeen years old and I’m out on a graffiti mission with a homie. We drive up to this industrial building, scope the spot and see a single security guard on the far side, opposite of the wall we want to paint. The wall faces the street and so is a great spot to catch, but it’s sitting behind a fence with barb wire spiraled along the top. The bottom of the fence, luckily, brushes against a sloping cement meaning we can slink underneath, paint the wall and get up out of there quickly.

We park down the street, wait a few minutes and then proceed to find our way under the fence and in front of the wall. We get to painting. It’s so quiet and security so far away, we think, that we take more time than we need. Of course security sees us, yells, and comes after us. We run around the building. My homie, being faster, slips under the fence first and heads toward his parked car. When I look, security is still far enough behind us that I’m not worried until I slide underneath the fence and can’t come up. My jeans get snagged. I’m stuck. I look back, see security still yards away and so I make the decision to kick off my shoes, pull off my pants, slide out, grab everything and run toward the getaway car in my boxers.

Order An Incomplete List of Names here!