Newtown Literary is pleased to spotlight Queens writer Carlos Hiraldo. We interviewed him about his new poetry collection, Machu Picchu Me, and his responses are below.
Tell us about Machu Picchu Me. What is it about?
Machu Picchu Me is a collection of poems I wrote between 1993 and 2007. They reflect the thoughts, feelings, and desires of an urban young man struggling to achieve what he would consider success in the personal, professional and social spheres. I wouldn’t say the poems are autobiographical. At least, I hope they are more than that. But the starting point is always an experience or a feeling or an idea evoked by an experience. Or rather, the memory of an experience.
Tell us about the process of writing Machu Picchu Me.
I guess the process lasted from 1993 to 2015. The first step was writing the individual poems throughout the years. As I wrote these poems, I didn’t think of them as forming part of a single book. I would send them off for publication in journals along with other poems I was writing at the time. Some of the poems that appear in Machu Picchu Me have appeared before in print and electronic journals. The second step in writing the book came when I put together the first version of the manuscript in 2008. It had the same title, and the title poem with its poetic manifesto of sorts opened the book as it does today. That early version, however, contained many more poems. Throughout the years, I have added and deleted poems from that period according to the advice and suggestion of fellow poets and writers who are closed and trusted friends. The third and final step came when the book was accepted by its current publisher. Then I engaged in an extensive revision process in which many of the poems were, I hope, strengthened.
What do you hope readers take away from your book?
First and foremost, I hope the readers can identify some of their own experiences, ideas, and feelings in the poems. I think that’s part of what every poet hopes for his or her book. Specifically, for Machu Picchu Me, I hope readers discover a voice that is seldom heard in American letters – that of a U.S.-born Latino trying to find a satisfying place within his native country, a country that doesn’t always acknowledge him and when it does, it is often hostile to him. Latino literature in the U.S. has been predominantly that of the immigrant experience. Though there’s been a large Latino community in New York City since the late nineteenth century, large enough for there to have been Spanish language newspapers in the city since then, and though we know that the United States arrived in what used to be Northern Mexico in the mid-nineteenth century, Latinos are still seen as “coming to America.” It’s is like we are never already here, like we never finally arrive. What’s considered the best of Latino literature reflects this perception. Many if not most Latino writers have been immigrants themselves. The voice of Machu Picchu Me identifies with the immigrant experience. It is that of his parents and of the community in which he is born and raised, but immigration does not inform his own relation with the United States.
What else have you written?
I am a poet and an English professor within the City University of New York. I have written many other poems, some of which have been published in poetry journals. I have also written academic works that have appeared in various publications. In 2003, I published Segregated Miscegenation: On the Treatment of Racial Hybridity in the U.S. and Latin American Literary Traditions. It explores the ways in which the definition of a “black” character evolved differently in U.S. and Latin American novels. Those definitions of course have influenced and reflected how the two societies have traditionally established who is black within their respective populations.
How does/did being a Queens writer influence your writing?
I can’t say that being a Queens writer influenced most of the poems in Machu Picchu Me. I wrote these during periods when I was living in Boston, Manhattan, Long Island, and then back again in Manhattan. Only “Off Sylvia Plath” is a proper Queens poem. It reflects my thoughts upon first moving to Sunnyside from Washington Heights where I was born and mostly raised. Queens does have a very strong influence on my writing today. I live with my family in Astoria. I can say the pace of life in Queens is slower and more open than it is in Manhattan at least for now. One gets more of a sense of community in Queens while still enjoying the thrills of living in New York City. I think my poetry today reflects more of that openness and sense of belonging.
What other writers have influenced or inspired you?
Many writers have inspired and influenced me. So many I couldn’t possibly do justice to all of them. I love the power of the images in the works of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Amiri Baraka, and Stevie Smith. Baraka was so inventive and re-inventive. His poetry and his overall writing style would change with shifts in how he perceived our social-political reality. And Stevie Smith’s sense of irony. I hope my poetry has that. A certain ironic distancing can be such a powerfully useful tool for the individual to grapple with the world. But again, I feel like speaking of influences is only an exercise in momentary recall. I just remembered that I am leaving out Charles Bukowski. I have devoured everything he has written. He seems to have been the only U.S. poet able to write successfully about class. Influences and inspirations… influences and inspirations… there are so many. Some poets can influence you with just one poem. Erik Pihel’s “Manhattan.” Paul Beatty’s “At Ease.” May Swanson’s “How Everything Happens (Based on a Study of the Waves).” So many poets, so little time to acknowledge what they have all meant to me at different periods in my life.
When you’re not writing, what’s your favorite thing to do?
Hang out with my two boys. Seriously. I am not just trying to seem like the cool contemporary dad. They are great. They live in the moment and say whatever it is that comes to mind. And I can steal some of the stuff they come up with for my own work.
Tell us something about you that has nothing to do with your book.
My family has nothing to do with my book. They came along after the poems in the book were written. I tend to think the best poetry comes from the darkest of places. My family has made me very happy. So even though I still tend to write poetry when things aren’t going that well, my current poetry can only get so dark. Some of it might actually be downright happy.
What should I have asked that I didn’t?
Que pasa, cabrón?
Where can readers buy your book?