Iliana Rocha is the 2019 winner of the Berkshire Prize for a First or Second Book of Poetry for her newest collection, The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez, from Tupelo Press. Karankawa, her debut, won the 2014 AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015). The recipient of a 2020 CantoMundo fellowship and 2019 MacDowell fellowship, she has had work featured or forthcoming in the Best New Poets 2014 anthology, as well as The New York Times, Poetry, Poem-a-Day, The Nation, Virginia Quarterly Review, Latin American Literature Today, Oxford American, and Blackbird among others,and sheserves as Poetry Co-Editor for Waxwing Literary Journal. She earned her PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University and is an Assistant Professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her three chihuahuas Nilla, Beans, and Migo are the loves of her life.
The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez is a collection which centers around the revolving lore surrounding Rocha’s grandfather, Inocencio Rodriguez, family, tabloid culture, and larger sociopolitical concerns as the women welcomed the universe into their hands.
Tiffany Troy: How does the first and title poem “The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez” set up the collection for the reader?
Iliana Rocha: To give a little context for the book, the main urgency of the collection is the different iterations, the many deaths, of Inocencio Rodriguez. I have many poems with that same title because I wanted to write down every version I’d heard of my grandfather’s passing. He was shot to death in Detroit in 1971 and we have no definitive version of how he died. Our common family folklore was him, and so we would trade stories almost like a campfire tale of all the versions of his death that we’d heard. I felt a particular urgency to pin him down in a way, because he is such a slippery figure to me.
I included the opening poem because, first, out of the different iterations of the titular poems, it’s the most surreal but also the most common narrative I’d heard. I think that this first poem was the major confluence of the surreal and strangely the real (or as real I can get to the actual truth) of his death.
TT: There were many ways Inocencio Rodriguez passed and snippets of what he’s like while he’s alive, so the reader really does get to know him both as a character and person. What you said really touches upon the idea of history, mythology, and how they bend.
IR: Absolutely! It’s like we have to create a mythos for things we can’t easily explain. That’s mythology, and I feel that is so true of the book.
TT: Can you talk about the process of writing this collection?
Inocencio Rodriguez is the linchpin, and you also have sections pointing to historical figures, celebrities and icons which take the form of persona poems. They are disturbing in the sense that they speak of people on the death row and people who are executed. You follow the tradition of documentary poetics while diverging from it in some respects. That’s my take on it, and I’m wonder what your take is.
IR: That’s so beautifully rendered, Tiffany, I think you answered your own question more beautifully than I could.
For me, this collection begins with the personal but couldn’t help but expand into the sociopolitical. Obviously, the overarching theme is my grandfather, but I wanted to tether him to the justice system and to the true crime genre.
I mention this a lot, but I am a reformed a true crime addict, so I would be lulled to sleep by Forensics Files and Investigation Discovery. I had to step back and interrogate why that obsession was. The collection also features tabloid culture, so again, trying to extend the personal into the political—then also interrogating what is it about me and my obsession with some of these “disturbing,” as you put it, pop culture icons.
I’ve always been fascinated with true crime, but it’s a lot of entertainment for entertainment’s sake. It’s a multitude of women and women of color who are subjected to recurring violence that goes unexamined. Obsession is built into the genre of true crime and tabloid culture. So these are all kinds of sub-urgencies that are meant to align and compliment with the bigger personal urgency.
TT: How do the different poetic forms help you tell the story that you want to tell? How do they facilitate the speaker or you as the poet in the mode of the lyric or narrative?
IR: I think it builds upon the point I was making about obsession in true crime genre because I turn to form when I have an obsession. Some of these forms, like a sestina, have obsession built into it.
I use what I call a deconstructed villanelle for my tabloid poems, and they’re meant to denote the erasure that happens when victims and survivors aren’t given their full subjecthood because of the entertainment value of tabloid culture. Form is a way to propel me into ironing out the wrinkles in my obsession and provides me a space to amplify the major thematic points of the poems. The prose poem helps me by giving me permission to write down the recurring narratives I’ve heard of my grandfather.
TT: Talking about the redaction of the tabloid poems specifically, how do languages and the redaction of languages help you tell the story you’d like to tell? I love how you touched upon how the tabloid poems points to what is being erased. Could you also speak about your experience as an English-language poet adding the Spanish language as part of the tale of the family and the larger geopolitical context?
IR: My grandfather was a Mexican immigrant, and I’m second-generation Mexican, so there are all of these disconnects and distances when you come from immigrant families. There’s a displacement that happens when you leave one country to go to another, and he was displaced further living in Texas, and then by fleeing to Detroit when family dynamics got too complicated at home.
There’s so much of that disconnect that defies or resists language. There’s an ineffable quality there, and sometimes there’s nothing in English that captures that emotional register. There’s no word at all that exists, except for that white space between brackets.
Sometimes, I’m trying to point to the lack of language’s capability to capture some of these really highly tense, emotional moments in my family history and in the larger sociopolitical history as well.
TT: That is so beautiful, you have “mi hija” and then “corazón” but you have it written out and I could tell it’s so second generation.
IR: Yeah, exactly, it’s phonetic and what I heard as a child—my parents spoke Spanish when I was young when they didn’t want my brother and I to understand what they were saying. It felt like there was an additional stigma with speaking Spanish in particular. I wanted to pay tribute to the child who was hearing this language and still trying to navigate her way through it, as well as trying to figure out for herself how she should feel about it. So I’m glad that you point to that moment because it’s a small one, but for me it’s really important.
TT: It was such an illuminating moment for me to get to know the speaker.
You have so much humor in your collection, and humor seems to be tied to fate. I’m going to point to two specific moments:
The first quote is “Humanity,” Guadalupe thought, “was more like the stubborn laughing of chihuahuas.” The second quote is “When the lord said, let there be light, it was hilarity in bright pause.”
How does humor showcase the many facets of death in this collection?
IR: I’ve not been called a humorist before, Tiffany, so this is a new line of inquiry for me. On the other side of all that sadness is levity.
When I’m looking at the leaf, the leaf is grief and loss and death row inmates, JonBenét Ramsey, and my grandfather. When I turn that leaf over, I have to see some sort of light there. One cannot exist without the other, so those moments of humor put the loss and grief in sharp relief. But it also is meant to be a moment of consolation for the speakers of the poems. That yes, all of this has happened, but where can I find those pockets of empathy? Because the collection is also about empathy; it’s never been about judgment for the Texas Seven, who I write about, for any subject of the tabloid poems, or for my grandfather, who was “not a good man.”
There’s a father figure in there who’s also not a good man, but the book is not about morality. It’s about empathy. And in order to generate that empathy and there has to be moments of a little bit of lightness, humor, and wink-wink nudge-nudge.
TT: I definitely felt that, and I love how one of your section titles is “Bad Hombres.”
You have many recurring motifs in this collection. We talked about how in the villanelles how the words themselves recur, following the form. Throughout your collection, there is a lot of burning, flame, and heat, recalling the deaths of Mexicans overheated in the truck behind. There’s also swelling bellies and uteruses which to me signify the grief of the women left behind.
How do you go about creating variation as those motifs recur?
IR: In this particular book, the obsessions are very clear and very present. One thing I was worried about was, am I writing the same poem over and over?
For this collection, that’s sort of the point. What I did try to do is to turn my point of view a little bit to the left each time. So, what am I capturing here that I didn’t capture in this poem that I didn’t capture in this one? How can I look at the nucleus in a slightly different way? Do I use a different form? What is the tone and emotional register—are those different?
If the content wasn’t really going to shift all that much, I wanted the diction to be different—I wanted something about the craft to really shape the content.
TT: What role does work and overwork play in your collection?
In one iteration of “The Many Deaths of Inocencio Rodriguez” you write, “When the gold ran out, she crocheted/ each star until her knuckles collapsed.” The poem speaks to how your ancestors, family, and people are the ones who built a lot of the buildings and structures that then White people take over and use. How do you go about pointing to the that work?
IR: I wrote a lot of this as Trump was a rising star in the Republican party and of course the “bad hombre” reference is to him. I’m recalling that moment where he made that speech about how when Mexico sends people it doesn’t send its best, but the drug dealers and the rapists and things like that.
I carry all that anti-Mexican, anti-immigrant rhetoric within me; it was always in the back of my mind as I wrote this collection: the way that Mexicans have been characterized as taking people’s jobs when, in fact, if you go to Texas, the main laborers building homes are mostly from Mexico. The people picking our fruits, my grandfather, who worked in Detroit installing air conditioners, my grandmother who worked in the high school cafeteria. I just think of all the really hard labor done by immigrants that goes unacknowledged. That always had a huge presence in my mind as I worked through this book and I feel like what you’re picking up on is the way that I kind of indirectly tried to respond to all that anti-Mexican sentiment that was so pervasive at the time, and still is, but that was really part of the discourse.
TT: In the moment when your grandmother crocheted each star until her knuckles collapsed, for instance, we really see exactly what you’re pointing towards which is how the work goes on acknowledged, because of the rhetoric and plain racism against Mexicans, especially during the Trump presidency. It felt like you were trying to absorb and understand where the rhetoric came from, and in that moment of understanding, we see the absurdity in it. Thus, you point to the problems in a way that did not feel at all judgmental but brought with grace and beauty.
Do you have any closing thoughts or tips you want to share with your readers?
IR: I just want to say, thank you for kind remark about my book being nonjudgmental because that was a huge priority of mine. I never want to put a morality on any anything that I write about. There’s no morality, there’s no judgment, it just “is” in this paradigm. I do always try to understand where people are coming from and to meet them where they are; That includes my grandfather who didn’t have a great history and who left a lot of damage on the family, but I would never pass judgment on him ever.
I always get asked a lot of questions about writing about family and I don’t know if this advice would work for everybody, but you must write your truth.
It sounds so cliché, but I have never held back in anything I’ve written about my family. My first book was heavily about my family too, and if I’ve ever expected negative reaction to anything I’ve written from someone close to me, it is never has never appeared, ever. What I’ve tried to do is really memorialize and pay tribute to complicated family dynamics—be reverent to it.
In the act of reverence, there is analysis, though. But I think my family members can discern that this is loving and, in that, there’s going to be a little bit of a critique. So I always say, write even if it feels like people are going to be hurt by it, even if it feels that it’ll be hard work for you emotionally. In my experience, the audience really does give writing the benefit of the doubt.
The other thing I will say is about form, because I know that some people can be resistant to it. Form is incredible and has pushed me into poetic spaces I would never would have gotten to on my own. Form is effective when you’re blocked because it naturally propels you forward. It grants you that momentum that you may not have if you’re just kind of staring at a blank page. Read people who are doing interesting things with form, who are subverting and inventing it because without this deconstructed villanelle, I wouldn’t have explored this tabloid culture in this way.
So my first piece of advice is thematic: go for it and write about your family, and my second piece of advice is craft: turn to form.