Under Pressure: Mike Soto

A Grave Is Given Supper, Mike Soto

Mike Soto is the author of the chapbooks, Beyond the Shadow’s Ink, and Dallas Spleen. He received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and was awarded the James Merrill Poetry Fellowship by Vermont Studio Center in 2019. His debut collection of poetry, A Grave Is Given Supper, has been adapted into an original literary-theatrical performance by Teatro Dallas directed by Claudia Acosta and starring Elena Hurst.


Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How long did working on A Grave is Given Supper take, from conception to publication?

Mike Soto: I started working on the manuscript with a decent idea of what I was doing in 2012. So, I would say about seven to eight hard fought years. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Where did you get the inspiration for your title?

Mike Soto: The title came from a line of a poem that I was once writing. It was the first title I gave the collection & it never seriously changed. In the end I think I wanted a title that captured the life/death cycle in a succinct metaphor, something that juxtaposed it with the same kind of simplicity expressed in Mesoamerican cultures. With those four words that was the aim. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: How do you feel about deadlines? Are they a good or bad pressure?

Mike Soto: Deadlines are part of the game, but the pressure they create seems to be on a pendulum of good or bad, depending on how you handle them. Since there is no such thing as perfection, I feel like deadlines force you to be at peace with the inevitable flaws that a work will have.

Deadlines can also be a test of how consistently you’ve been focused. No one wants to rush to finish something important. You want the rush to be about the details that can take the work to another level, I think. So ultimately, I feel like deadlines are devices for bringing the completion of a project into focus, & very necessary.  

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

Mike Soto: I usually have a few altar spaces that I maintain. I’ve had at least one space dedicated to Jesús Malverde, the folk-saint from Sinaloa who stole from the greedy & gave to the needy, for the duration of my time writing A Grave Is Given Supper. Developing a personal & creative relationship to Malverde, embedded in the maintenance of that space & also meditating in that space & from that space—drove me to write the poems that I did. I don’t think it could have happened another way. The practice of adding (& subtracting) objects from important trips & places, objects that people I’m close to give me, or that come into my possession through a deep coincidence, center my intentions & my writing. I’ll usually light the altar space when I’m working, & then come back to it when I need to take a break or refocus. This practice informs my writing and alters the altar space, & vice versa, all the time. 

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

Mike Soto: I’d like to share instead some advice that I went against: I was encouraged by a few mentors to play up my cultural identity as a Latinx writer, & also to give myself up in terms of writing about my personal experience. That advice didn’t ring true to the work that I wanted to do. So I’m happy that I went against this advice. Although AGIGS is not a book that I consider to be directly about my cultural identity, & not directly about my personal history, I think those elements are still present, but they exist in a submerged manner. My hope was that this allowed the book to be more of a communal object instead of the expression of an individual.   

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

Mike Soto: I usually keep a pocket journal, a notebook-sized journal, and craft paper taped to a wall. I tend to use a lot of tape when I’m deep into a writing project. I love the freedom of writing with a marker on a wall, it feels akin to graffiti. This is probably absurd to say but I think sitting for long periods of time is my least favorite things to do while writing. I try to balance that stillness with as much movement as possible.   

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

Mike Soto: Stephanie Adams-Santos‘ poetry. The films of Bi Gan. The photos of Jim Goldberg. The photo-sculptural work of Dayanita Singh

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

Mike Soto: Probably plants, I would shape the experience of every room with plants. If there was no natural light (lame) in the museum, then I would use lenticulars as a medium and shape the experience of every room with lenticular prints of some sort. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Could you talk about the organization of the book? Parts of it are inspired by Jodorowsky’s El Topo, right?

Mike Soto: Yes, AGIGS borrows several narrative & metaphysical elements from El Topo, & I wrote the two protagonists as Topos in the making, in lineage with the black-clad protagonist of Jodorowsky’s film. Like El Topo, there are also four showdowns in AGIGS, poems where Topito, the protagonist, has a gunfight with an avatar of Death. But these poems are meant to stage phases of an inner transformation, as opposed to being duels with a master as in El Topo.  So, AGIGS is not a faithful retelling, but you could say it’s in lineage with El Topo, in terms of having similar metaphysical, aesthetic, & narrative ambitions. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: If you could describe A Grave Is Given Supper in three words, what would they be? Why?

Mike Soto: Despite, Death, Yes. I think the book’s energy draws on Topito’s and Consuelo’s journey to seek a kind of redemption, or enlightenment, despite the culture of violence around them. That word “despite” always seemed like the essential verb of the book. Finding, against all odds, that indelible Yes. 

Sebastián Hasani Páramo: Finally, which character do you identify with the most in your book or in El Topo?

Mike Soto: In El Topo I identified not so much with the El Topo himself but with the series of transformations that he undergoes. I wanted Topito in AGIGS to go through a similar series of transformations. I guess I might be interested in going through some of those transformations myself. 

Order A Grave is Given Supper, here.