Under Pressure: Roberto Carlos Garcia

[Elegies], Roberto Carlos Garcia

Poet, storyteller, and essayist Roberto Carlos Garcia is a self-described “sancocho […] of provisions from the Harlem Renaissance, the Spanish Poets of 1929, the Black Arts Movement, the Nuyorican School, and the Modernists.” Garcia is rigorously interrogative of himself and the world around him, conveying “nakedness of emotion, intent, and experience,” and he writes extensively about the Afro-Latinx and Afro-diasporic experience. His third poetry collection, [Elegies] is available from Flower Song Press, and his second collection, black / Maybe: An Afro Lyric, is available from Willow Books. Roberto’s first collection, Melancolía, is available from Červená Barva Press.

His poems and prose have appeared or are forthcoming in POETRY Magazine, The BreakBeat Poets Vol 4: LatiNEXT, Bettering American Poetry Vol. 3, The Root, Those People, Rigorous, Academy of American Poets Poem-A-Day, Gawker, Barrelhouse, The Acentos Review, Lunch Ticket, and many others.

He is founder of the cooperative press Get Fresh Books Publishing, A NonProfit Corp.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: This book is titled [Elegies]. Could you talk about the genesis of this book and how it’s in conversation with your previous collection, Black/Maybe?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: There are definitely some intersections with black / Maybe: An Afro Lyric: family histories, formative childhood experiences, poems exploring the post-colonial third world nature of the hood. [Elegies] is also in conversation with my first book, Melancolía, which leans towards the metaphysical. The true genesis of the book was my grandmother’s death from complications due to Alzheimer’s. I wrote a series of elegies for her that became a chapbook. When I submitted it to Flower Song they asked for a manuscript and here we are. As I assembled the book it became evident that I wasn’t just eulogizing my grandmother but also other beloveds, past versions of myself, stereotypes and myths, other consciousness(es). But I’m also praising life lived, the book is as much ode as it is elegy.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Tell us about the mixtape poem and how forms like the elegy and essay inform your work.

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I basically wanted to break the constraints of the cento. It is already a great form but because I write essays and fiction, I had a host of lines from each genre floating around in my head that I wanted to put into a poem. And then the song lyrics! So, I decided to break the rules and come up with a new form, the mixtape. When I was a kid mixtapes were everything. I remember first hearing Nas’s classic, “Halftime,” on a mixtape.

There are some things that you can’t say in a poem, you need an essay or a short story, and vice versa. I am a poet and I consider myself a writer, as such I embrace the challenge of writing in any genre. I am inspired by so many wonderful writers and they move me to the page to use my art in multiple genres.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure for you? Maybe it’s a way of putting form on time and content.

Roberto Carlos Garcia: There’s a wonderful tweet out there that goes “If you give me a deadline on a writing project, I’ll give you a clean house and an eight-course meal.” Lol. There’s definitely an element of procrastination involved with deadlines but at the end of the day you’re either going to write it or you’re not. A part of me believes the writer makes their mind up about that well in advance. Then there’s the professional element of the whole thing that creates pressure. You don’t want to be known as that writer, unreliable and what not. The stigma associated with that creates even more anxiety and pressure. I guess I hate deadlines but they’re a necessary evil sometimes. I’m not answering this question very well.

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

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I read a lot. I need to hear other voices in my head. Perhaps that’s an old school approach but it is an essential part of our craft. I enjoy reading those “Art Of” interviews in the Paris Review. Sometimes the questions are just as good, if not better, than the responses. I meditate, that’s a must, and I work out. I believe it’s important to feel the body mind connection through physical work. And music, I have to have music.

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

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I’ve been fortunate to receive a lot of great advice. One bit of advice that stands out to me today is by the poet Anne Marie Macari, who as I was nearing graduation from my MFA told me that “writers write.” I’ve carried that with me ever since. You can take breaks and recharge, but eventually you have to get back to that blank page and write. Writing is a commitment, a practice, a Way. Recognizing and honoring “writers write” is respecting your gift. That stands out to me.

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

Roberto Carlos Garcia: I don’t journal, but I know I should. So many writers journal as a practice and swear by it. I’m not a creature of habit that way. I do keep a dream diary and I find that far more interesting. Looking back through a month’s worth of dreams is a wild ride. I can’t recommend it enough.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Who are you crushing on art-wise these days?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: John Murillo’s Kontemporary American Poetry. Great poetry by one of our best and brightest.

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

Roberto Carlos Garcia: Painting. I love visual art in any medium, but painting is my favorite. I painted at least ten pieces, four of which are in my office on campus, and the rest are sitting in my basement.

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: What does the 5-track mixtape for this book look like?

Roberto Carlos Garcia:

Who’s Gonna Take the Weight” by Gang Starr

Me Gritaron Negra” by Victoria Santa Cruz

La Zafra” Richie Ray & Bobby Cruz

Sometimes” by Raphael Saadiq

I Miss U” by N II U

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If you could describe [Elegies] in three words, what would they be? Why?

Roberto Carlos Garcia: Love. Memory. Legacy.

This book really came out of love. My love for my grandmother and my sister, for the people in my life, for the people I’ve lost, even versions of myself, ghosts and shadows, that I’ve shed over many years and turning points in life. The book comes from loving myself too.

Memory plays an important role in this book and it permeates all the poems. Memory ties into legacy and legacy ties into the elegies which a dear friend told me read like odes at times.

Check out [Elegies] here.