On Emptiness and Revising the Poems in Rattlesnake Allegory
So I found myself at a party one night, several years back, in San Francisco, during Folsom. It was after 4 am, and I was with my husband and with good friends and with the world, really, when we think about spaces such as these, the world that I wanted to make for myself, the world that others, like me, have been making for people like us from times since before we were born. It was a great party. And as my body wore down that night at Real Bad, and I decided against afterhours, we stood in the line at the clothes check and I realized that something inside me had come undone, which may, of course, sound trite and chemical, but what I mean to say is that in moments of shift in our lives, there can be particular events and even instants where we can take our fingers and say, There. That part. That was the night I changed my life. For me, Real Bad was that night, and although the poems in Rattlesnake Allegory, which I’d drafted a couple of years earlier, started about loneliness, they did not end up in loneliness. These poems took off from places of want and longing and confusion and land, which, of course, are places I will never claim to know in their entireties, though, still, they are places in which I feel queerly fluent. And in the years after, as I was revising these poems, I felt there was still lack, a hollowness, to their lines and images and sounds, and I discovered that hollowness to speak. To echo, of course. It does that. But it’s what hollowness can also do
that enthralls me. To carry its own sounds, its own certainties, its own constrictions and textures and breaks. To revise these poems, I embraced that hollowness, my own, the emptiness I love having filled but that I also just enjoy experiencing as just that, an emptiness. It is an emptiness that allows both flight and tethering. While I’d like to say that it was purposeful, that I began with images of rattlesnakes and lowrider and owls, it wasn’t. Was it accidental? Was it wildness coming for me and me allowing that wildness to enter? I am less interested in knowing this than I am in knowing that I am becoming something better, that I am living the life I have always wanted to live. I am more interested in knowing that emptiness is glorious and can be seen.
“There is so much desire, loneliness, and ultimately a longing for love in these sensuous, honest, and searing poems. So many questions, so much beautiful emptiness in return. Joe Jiménez exhibits poetic skill throughout—from the marvelous use of repetition, which leads to a kind of intensity and earnestness, to the often-surprising and sparkling imagery. He writes: “…but I also want to make beautiful things. Sometimes, I want others to/see me/as beautiful, too. Not rough, not voracious…” Jiménez has made a beautiful voracious thing—Rattlesnake Allegory, a brilliant book of poems by a poet I will keep my eye on for years to come.”
—Victoria Chang author of Barbie Chang
“Where were these poems when I was lost in a Mictlan of my own making? They leave a throbbing in the flesh like fanged teeth. Antidote: run for your pen. A gorgeous collection que me dejó con envidia.”
First, I thought desire the core of these gorgeous lyrics—belly hunger, eros, a near ecclesial pang to be good. Joe Jiménez makes palpable a world of things to want, sometimes despite how they might cut—mesquite and teeth, thick arms and bedfuls of nopales, tattoos and gleaming gar fish. But then I wondered—what are all these owls doing here? Harbingers of death, these raptors rap against the cage of the poet’s ribs, the poet rapt in loves some insist he die for and some he would choose to die for. This fearless and beautiful book follows a man who knows the difference and loves them all anyway.
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On Writing Bloodline
When I started writing the novel Bloodline, I began with just this question: Does a boy need a father in order to become a good man? Of the myriad ways to be men, both conscious and unconscious, seeing the manners in which other masculinities are performed offers neurons and muscles the magic of doing and of being. In this novel, I tell the story of Abram, a seventeen year-old junior in high school who fights too much and loves a red-haired girl named Ophelia, who fears his anger is the consequence of coming from a line of men who, like him, fight and distrust and want to break things because too often life seems wicked and unfair. Abram’s grandmother, Gertrudis, along with her partner, Becky, raise Abram and disagree on the notion that Abram’s uncle Claudio, regardless of his troubled past, should come back into the house to teach the boy “how to be a man.”
I don’t expect this novel to answer that question necessarily, but instead, and perhaps more necessarily, I needed the story of Abram to kindle questions in my readers, particularly young male readers, young male Latino readers. If you don’t have a father in your life, or if the only male figures in your life are torcidos, to whom do you turn to learn things you want to know? Everyday, how are women teaching boys to become men? More precisely, in the story I am telling, how do queer women guide boys to become men? I believe these questions matter not only to people like the ones for whom I have written this novel but to society. In this, the novel offers an opportunity to interrogate our notions of masculinity, a Latino masculinity that wears its class and race and sexualities like a chestful of irremovable placas, a Latino masculinity that all too often is reduced to a simplistic and stereotyped hyper-machismo but that speaks so many more possibilities.
A haunting, beautiful story about the vulnerability and heartbreak of young adulthood. Jiménez's lyrical novel will resonate with teen and adult readers alike.
- Reyna Grande, author of The Distance between Us
Joe Jimenez’s writing has astonished me and made me sit up and pay attention since the first time I heard him read his work out loud. He continues to make me yearn to hear what he has to say in a voice that is at once masculine, tender, brave, and beautiful. I am his longtime fan.
- Sandra Cisneros, poet, essayist, novelist
A punch in the gut, Bloodline is an exceptional debut novel. Joe Jimenez’s killer literary instinct, his precision of language, his mastery of story is second to none. There is no young adult novel quite like this one. It challenges the way we think about masculinity, family, and love.
- Virginia Grise, author of blu
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On Making Poems
I started writing when I was a little boy. Scribbles, mostly, a story about awakening one morning to discover my entire body covered in fur, letters to myself. I was in 7th grade when I first wondered about what made a poem. I remember reading a very old poem, the title slips me now, and it said to me, There are rules, and you don’t know them, and so, you won’t understand what I am.
Twenty-five years later, I won’t claim to know what exactly poems are made of, but I can tell you how I make them or show you some of the ones I’ve made. Plainly, I see myself as a poem-maker, a craftsman, sure, a man fortunate enough to at times be privy to the music. I like to think of the poems I make as echoes of Donald Hall’s idea that “a poem is one man’s inside talking to another man’s inside.”
I’ve written about the Gulf Coast of my native South Texas, how there is authority and solidity and questions to be found in the salt by admitting how little it is we know about the world and how much there is to observe. The poems that arrived from this work compose The Possibilities of Mud.
Like Thoreau before him, Joe Jiménez reminds us that if we are to know ourselves, we must be intimately familiar with the natural world around us. Shaped by the lovely tendrils of question marks, Jiménez’s poems are a wondrously insistent search for the deeper, more primordial truths that our urban, built environments rarely allow. The poems’ musical language, like the gull’s “thick whistle,” render these meditations haunting and memorable. I marvel at the gulf that is the setting for many of Jiménez’s poems: it is an inlet fed by a vast sea of ancient wisdom and deeply felt emotion. In their sense of wonderment at the natural beauty that surrounds us, Jiménez’s poems honor his ancestors, the Mexica, who were compelled to leave behind the familiar in search of the unknown. These antepasados are ever-present in the poems; they tell us that “all things matter when the time/is right.” The time is right. Jiménez’s poems matter.
- Pablo Miguel Martínez, author of Brazos, Carry Me