“I yearn to keep dancing in his breath: A Conversation with Aldo Amparán about Brother Sleep“ — curated by Tiffany Troy

Aldo Amparán is the author of Brother Sleep (Alice James Books, 2022), winner of the 2020 Alice James Award. They are the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts & CantoMundo. Brother Sleep, situated in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua and El Paso, Texas, features speakers who yearn to keep dancing in the breadth of familial loss and gay love through a reinvention of poetic forms and critical subversion of hate speech.

Tiffany Troy: How does the opening poem “Litany with Burning Fields” set the reader up for what is to follow?

Aldo Amparán: Grief always begins with an ending—a lover’s last goodbye, a lost memory, the passing of a loved one—but before I experienced loss, the idea sometimes sneaked into my mind, a small fear, a tiny grievance that spilled into my dreams. Perhaps even a premonition. Opening the book in this realm of dreams made sense.

It seemed important, too, that the poem is also a litany since litanies traditionally consist of a sequence of supplications. One of the supplications in the poem is the opening, “Let’s say death only exists in this line,” which embodies what is perhaps the strongest yearning in the book: to fight against death and loss.

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

AA: I began putting together Brother Sleep as my thesis for the MFA. A couple of years after graduating, the book continued to evolve.  Despite this, I wrote the earliest poem that would make it into the book as an undergraduate (“Primer for a View of the Sea”).

To ignite the book, there were many “false starts.” For example, I initially wrote persona poems in the voices of Sleep, Death, and Night. Some of these still made it into the book, but I realized that having so many voices kept me from being vulnerable. It was important to me to allow myself vulnerability because it was something I was often taught to avoid, so I pushed myself to write about one of the two most difficult times of my life. 

TT: How did you organize the collection into its five sections? What purpose do they serve for the collection as a whole?

AA: I owe much of the book’s organization to Andrés Cerpa’s guidance during the book’s editing stage. The number five always seemed important, though, when arranging its sections. There are, after all, five stages of grief and five stages of sleep. Though the sections do not navigate or are in conversation with those stages explicitly (at least not intentionally), the number seemed appropriate.

TT: How does form inform your collection? Does the work of defining and redefining a word take on new significance for the speaker?

AA: Looking back, again, at the process of writing the book, experimenting with form became a crucial element in how much the manuscript transformed/improved from my thesis draft. Developing form pushed the poems’ intentions. The perfect example of this is the poem “Glossary for What You Left Unsaid: Concave” which first appeared in Poetry Northwest (and can be read here: https://www.poetrynw.org/aldo-amparan-glossary-for-what-you-left-unsaid-concave/). For my thesis, this poem was written in couplets, but I saw how much it needed a more dynamic form to go along with the urgent voice of the speaker.

I’m very interested in traditional forms, especially the way the form can be subverted. There are several “unconventional” sonnets, for example, as an attempt echo the number 41 throughout the book. Then there are the more explicit form, like the “Imploding Villanelle” and the sequence of haikus that slowly break away from the form in “Chronology with Little Deaths”. Many elegies found in the book even challenge the traditions of the elegy by refusing closure.

Finally, the “Glossary” poems began with a very specific purpose: to redefine or interrogate the language of hate, the way “Puñal” (which is both a slur for gay men and literally means “dagger”) does it. However, the process of looking at the dictionary definitions made me broaden the intention of the sequence. Looking at dictionary definitions for inspiration became an exercise to produce poems. And the break between each definition also allows fragmentation, or rather, small endings where the poem is broken into sections because of these definitions.

TT: What themes/ motifs does the form allow?

AA: Form often enhances the poems’ center & helps express what language fails to. There’s a lot of hesitation in the speaker’s voice, so silence is important. Fragmentation, again, enhances this, as does white space. There are also my attempts to subvert form. How, for instance, themes of unspoken or unsayable things could be represented through dictionary definitions.

TT: How does family history, migration, and politics play into the poetic concerns of the speaker?

AA: This is an excellent question, and it makes me think of my poem “Inheritance” because it originated out of two small family histories. It merges them to give voice to the poem’s speaker. There’s something my mother once mentioned that stuck around in my head for whatever blessed reason: she began losing hair when she became pregnant with me and was surprised I was born with so much hair. The later part of the poem took some of my grandmother’s stories recalling her mother’s struggles with dementia.

The year after I graduated with my MFA, I worked as a caregiver at a shelter for unaccompanied youth. This was a very gratifying experience, and it was enriching because it truly shed light upon the privilege I have as a fronterize, moving freely across a border that separates families. I wrote a lot of poems about my experience crossing this border as the son of a single immigrant. But I also found it necessary to look at other ways in which borders separate not only land but blood, and how they politicize placement.

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

AA: Years ago, I would have never thought my work would be out there for people to read, much less work that in a way recounts one of the most difficult periods of my life. It took a while to allow myself to be vulnerable enough to write this book, but I am so very grateful for everyone who reads it!