“Can I tell you that sometimes I utter the word justice and mean revenge?: A Conversation with J. Estanislao Lopez about We Borrowed Gentleness” — curated by Tiffany Troy

J. Estanislao Lopez’s poetry has been published in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Poetry Magazine, and has appeared in anthologies such as BreakBeat Poets Vol. 4: LatiNext and the Bedford Compact Introduction to Literature. He earned an MFA from Warren Wilson Program for Writers and lives in Houston. We Borrowed Gentleness is a collection which examines how the conditions of family and country may also serve to structure the violence we enact upon one another and the process of unlearning the love drawn from violence and inequitable power structures.

Tiffany Troy: How does the opening poem, “A Metaphor,” set the reader up for what is to follow? I am interested in how in “A Metaphor,” you explore ideas like the roots of evil and beauty, and how evil and beauty interact with family, immigration, class, and belonging.

J. Estanislao Lopez: What the opening poem presents to the reader is a call to look twice. To not just consider the act of witness, but to reconsider it. I think the book meditates with an intensity and restlessness that reflects my own natural thought process. Poems are not arguments, as has been said. But every poem relies upon a basic set of assumptions and cognitive structures to resonate with the reader, much like an argument. The assumption being undermined in that opening poem is one that attaches evil to its consequences rather than its conditions. We attach evil to that which is unsightly, such as the gnat. We rationalize conditions that benefit us, even if it harms others. Those three biases result in the last line being quite surprising on the first read. Surprising, but also recognizable, as poetic truth must be.

As for the book at large, one thing that the book struggles with is the question of how the conditions of family and country, which often invoke love, beauty, and pride, may also serve to structure the violence we enact upon each other. We hope that violence arrives as a warping of those powers, that their natures are essentially good, but it may also be the case that their nature is violent and they must be warped into nonviolence by rigorous critique and adjustment. Of course, both may be true. The form of love I inherited—one that many inherit—was deeply patriarchal and violent. A combination of literacy and luck led to my rejection of that inheritance. Many, maybe most, stay trapped by that inheritance. So gentleness, for these speakers, for myself, must be, in a sense, borrowed and learned as an externalized grace.

TT: Can you describe the process of writing this book?

JEL: I wrote this book not knowing I was writing a book until the last two years of the process. Some of these poems are from as long as ten years ago. The bulk of them are recent. I began as a poet very uncomfortable with autobiographically-inspired speakers. I liked to play with rhetoric and ideas. I liked rendering imagery that felt fresh and surprising. I did not like exploring my family history. In fact, I did not speak with my family much. However, as I started having children of my own, and having met my partner who has a background in history, I began to gravitate more towards my own context as material for interrogation. During my MFA, the poet and editor Martha Rhoades acknowledged my meditative nature and emphasized how important it was for the family poems to ground the collection. I began to notice, as well, the balance that the book was achieving: how the familial poems concretized and texturized the more flighty, perhaps ethereal, poems that are rooted in abstract play. I wrote the last poems with that balance in mind.

TT: How did you organize the collection into its three sections? What purpose do recurring motifs (such as “Alternate Endings”) serve for the collection as a whole?

JEL: I am going to cite Matthew Olzmann here (I believe this is a second-hand paraphrase). He described to someone else who then described to me the very practical benefit of how section breaks create more opportunities for that special reading experience of the opening poem and the closing poem. With that in mind, I chose the poems that felt, to me, to have an opening momentum or closing gravity. Once those were chosen, the poems began shuffling within and between those sections through a mostly irrational process of considering each poem’s tonal registers and thematic elements. The “Alternate Endings” allowed me to create an arc across the entirety of the book in addition to that chaptered sense of progression.

TT: How does form inform your collection?

JEL: So form usually is discussed in two ways: stanzaic form or rhetorical form. When it comes to stanzaic form, I do not believe I am the most experimental poet. I favor couplets. In fact, I had way too many couplets in the manuscript originally and had to find new forms for several poems. What I like most about the couplet is the way it calls on the writer to think dialectically and to subvert the assumptions of that first line in ways that ultimately generate productive ambiguities throughout the poem. But I decided I wanted to push myself beyond the more traditional forms with certain poems and speakers.

I learned very recently, just the last three years or so before the book’s publication, how to push into the poem’s negative space in ways that I found interesting, even exciting, and definitely uncomfortable for me as a poet. But I think if I am not writing into discomfort, my work will not surprise me and therefore will also not surpass the finite territory of my intelligence. I want to write poems smarter than me, as I think we all do. That requires discomfort, and form is one way that I can make myself uncomfortable quite quickly. When it comes to rhetorical form: I love the poem that begins with a rhetorical conceit or pattern, then must somehow transcend that pattern. I have quite a few catalogs or litanies in the book, and it always astounds me when the language manages to find a kind of trapdoor within those rigid structures.

TT: What themes or motifs do the different forms allow? Take, for instance, the couplets versus the prose blocks versus the more visual pieces.

JEL: Ah, the prose poems! It’s a mysterious feeling, but there’s a point during a draft at which I sense that the line breaks are hindering the rhetorical richness or sharpness, that the stanzaic form disrupts the rhetorical form in a way that causes a kind of psychological dissonance.

Sometimes this is a useful dissonance, but for certain poems I decide that it’s really obscuring the trajectory of the speaker or overdramatizing the syntax so much that it merits sacrificing stanzaic form altogether. So, I write the prose poems.

Every prose poem in the book found that prosaic form in the very first draft. I get a very strong feeling early on and there’s rarely any going back. Not that those poems could never have been written in verse. It would be fun to see how other poets might versify it. But I just couldn’t see the verse-form that would improve the drama and tension that the compressed syntax and diction of the prose block already generate.

I am very interested as well in the relationship in a poem between the  more pronounced visual forms and the capacities of the speaker in those poems. When the line is allowed to scatter itself across the negative space, the speaker is allowed a much broader range of hesitations, pauses, silences, accelerations, and so many patterns of talk. The speaker always speaks but doesn’t always talk, especially in the more elevated or lyrical poems. Those formal experimentations, in this book, in terms of craft, attempt to manage the reader’s eye movement in a way that results in a specific kind of tonal flexibility.

TT: How do you construct a consistent narrative voice throughout the collection?

JEL: For this book, the consistency of that narrative voice is created by staying true to a couple core principles.

The first is my own vision of what my poems can and cannot do. Perhaps, more honestly, what I am good at and what I am not.

The second principle that I held close to me is the truth of the experiences my family has been shaped by. Those acts of love, error, and violence that are easy to call habitual or inherent, but must always be interrogated until their stone begins to flake. If I could stay true to those things, then there are certain questions I am faced with, both as a poet and as a man.

The book faces those questions, not necessarily answering them, but engaging them without fear of the unlikeable speaker or the unvirtuous persons we love or become. I try to toe this thin line between moral understanding and moral judgment, between historical and personal failures. I try to navigate that material by putting truth ahead of ego, while simultaneously putting language over argument, so that the poems might succeed both thematically and artistically. Hopefully, they either succeed or fail in ways that yield insight.

TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?

JEL: I would just like to say thank you to everyone who spends time with this collection. I hope there are poems here that might stay with you. I would also like to say a special thanks to you, Tiffany, for your insightful questions and for giving me some space to think about this work that I’ve given so much of my life to. I wish you the best!