“What is life without light after all”: A Conversation with Tomas Morin, curated by Lisa Olstein

Tomás Q. Morín is the author of the poetry collection Machete (Knopf, 2021) and the memoir Let Me Count the Ways (Univ. of Nebraska, 2022). His first collection of poetry A Larger Country was the winner of the American Poetry Review/Honickman Prize and runner-up for the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. Patient Zero, his second poetry collection, was described by Publishers Weekly in a starred review as “striking in capturing everyday actions with startling, musical wit.” With Mari L’Esperance he co-edited Coming Close: Forty Essays on Philip Levine, a book that explores the art and value of Philip Levine’s five decades of teaching. In his work as a translator, Morín translated Pablo Neruda’s visionary The Heights of Macchu Picchu, as well as Luisa Pardo & Gabino Rodriguez’s libretto Pancho Villa From a Safe Distance, a magisterial opera composed by Graham Reynolds.

Lisa Olstein: What questions or obsessions urged this particular work into being or revealed themselves in it?

Tomas Morin: The Spanish proverb that opens Machete is the key to the book: “Dios aprieta, pero no ahorca.” In terms of gist, the English equivalent is that familiar “God won’t give you more than you can handle.” When you translate the saying literally, as I did, it takes on a dark, complicated tone: “God squeezes, but He doesn’t strangle.” No surprise, Job is one of the presiding spirits of this book. Heck, probably of all my books! The question all my work has returned to over and over is how do we keep living in spite of that hand that’s squeezing the light out of us. I meant to type “the life” just then, but “the light” is better. And closer to the truth. What is life without light after all? And without humor! If we can’t laugh at the absurdity of it all then what hope is there? 

LO: “Form sets the thought free,” says Anne Carson, and I believe her. How did form and thought co-evolve in the unfolding of this work? 

TM: Full stops. The period. It came back into my life about halfway through Machete. For years I had been writing these 1-2 page long single-sentence poems. What drove that particular form was that oftentimes when I would put a period down, the poems would click shut. So my approach then was to come up with as many ways to keep a sentence going and have it still be grammatically correct. The hinge of that form was the coordinating conjunction and thus, the poems have their roots sunk deep into the soil of causality. Why this all came into my life I have no idea. Nor do I know why periods finally came back. I mean, it wasn’t just that periods came back, it was that a period appearing didn’t mean I was kicked out of the poem. I was so thankful because to be honest, I had grown tired of the particular kind of thinking those long sentence poems required. So this book has a nice mix of forms. There’s even a list poem about police violence which, in its form, couldn’t be more different than the kinds of poems I was writing a few years ago. 

LO: What felt riskiest to you about this work?

TM: What feels riskiest is writing about my life and my family in very direct ways. I know it’s old hat for people to write about their families but I’ve taken my time coming around to doing it so nakedly. In my first and second poetry collections, I often used persona poems or masked real moments in my life so well that they really became fictional. What caused the change? To be honest, I think writing a memoir about my childhood and my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder opened me up in new ways. Because I’ve been doing this poetry thing for so long, I’m less worried about how I’ll be “seen” by poetry audiences when Machete comes out. However, I’m not at all sure how I’ll be received by audiences who buy the memoir that don’t know my poetry. The people who already know me will know me better after reading the memoir. But those who don’t know me, will feel, if I did it right, like they do know me. That’s part of the magic of books, right? The thing is the memoir is only a slice of my life. And besides, for as powerful as they are, not even a book can give us the ability to fully know anyone. If it sounds like I’m running in circles then it’s because I am. I just don’t know what to expect, but I’m ready for the ride.  

LO: What kept you company during the writing of this work? Did any books, songs, art works, philosophical treatises, snacks, walks, or oddball devotions contribute to a book-specific creative realm? 

TM: I had to go back and look at my Facebook timeline to remember what life was like back in 2017 when I first gathered the poems that would become Machete. How weird it was to see the pictures of that life that now feels so far away. There were drinks with friends, outdoor concerts (Lauryn Hill!), touring for my second book that had just been published that year. You, Erika L. Sánchez, and I did an event for our new books that year at the Texas Book Festival! There were so many snacks back then (and now!) when I would write poems… apples, pecans, bananas, lots of water. Writing poems makes me feel like I’m overheating, like when the little fan comes on in your computer. That never happens with prose, though. Not sure why. The other company this book had back then was my cat Lindsey. It wouldn’t be long before she would pass just a month shy of 20 years old. She predated my MFA and so when my memoir Let Me Count the Ways comes out in 2022, that’ll be the last of my books that I wrote while in her company. She was there for six books, purring and grooming and staring out the window at birds and napping, lots of napping, while I typed away knowing that when the day’s work was done, she would always be ready for some head scratches and to sit on my lap. If it’s not obvious, I miss her dearly. There was so much heart and soul and spunk and love in that little body. 

LO: How has it been to shift out of the creative space of this book? What are you working on now?

TM: I have different pots on the stove right now. I have a follow-up prose book about parenting and race in America. Poems are slowly arriving. I have an idea for a novel that’s been bumping around in my head for years now. I feel like next year I might finally try to draft it. The creative space of Machete is so different than this bizarro time we’ve been living in. I feel like the pandemic has made me rethink what the most basic things mean like time, space, art. Like a lot of people these days, I feel like I’m in a kind of limbo. Is there another side to this, a place where we can all gather together safely, drink wine and munch on crackers and cheese while a writer makes her way to the mic, a time when the riskiest thing in the room is the crackers being stale? God, I sure hope so.