Prose Feature: “Carbon Based: An Interview with David Tomas Martinez” by Emilia Phillips

August 14, 2015

Hustle by David Tomas Martinez Sarabande Books

David Tomas Martinez’s work has been published or is forthcoming in Poetry Magazine, Ploughshares, Boston Review, Los Angeles Review of Books, Oxford American, Forklift, Ohio, Poetry International, Gulf Coast, Crab Orchard Review, Drunken Boat, Academy of American Poet’s Poem-A-Day, Poetry Foundation’s PoetryNow, Poetry Daily, Spork Press, Split This Rock, RHINO, Ampersand Review, Caldera Review, Verse Junkies, California Journal of Poetics, Toe Good, and others. DTM has been featured or written about in Poets & Writers, Publishers Weekly, NPR’s All Things Considered, Poetry, NBC Latino, Buzzfeed, Houstonia Magazine, Houston Art & Culture, Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express News, Bull City Press, and Border Voices. Having earned his MFA at San Diego State University, he is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Houston’s Creative Writing program, an emphasis in poetry, and he is the reviews and interviews editor for Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, after having been a Bread Loaf and CantoMundo Fellow. His debut collection of poetry, Hustle, was released in 2014 by Sarabande Books, which won the New England Book Festival’s prize in poetry, Devil’s Kitchen Reader’s Award, and honorable mention in the Antonio Cisneros Del Moral prize. He is the 2015 winner of the Verlaine Poetry Prize from Inprint.

Emilia Phillips, Interviews Editor: At risk of being obvious, I’d like to start with the cover of your book: Hustle, the title, in tattoo-ink script. After reading the book, I started down the path of making thematic associations between the idea of the tattoo and the poems’ approaches to their subject matter, their obsessions. What do you think about the idea that poems themselves tattoo experience onto the poet, maybe even the reader? By writing out of our own experience or, at the very least, out of what we may have witnessed of others’ experiences, do we needle memory into us with a kind of finality, permanence that mere recollection can’t provide? I guess what I’m really asking is, does the poem last when our memories do not?

David Tomas Martinez: I think that is a very appropriate and sonorous image, a tattooing of experience on the poet by the poem, leaving a permanent scar on the brain that is beautiful and unique. And a poet’s poems are the recognizable mark of their existence, their distinguishing traits that others use to identify them. Unfortunately, my decision on the cover of Hustle was much baser and ordinary than your eloquent explanation. Sarabande Books was gracious enough to give me the freedom to express my vision, and I know how rare it is for a press to allow the artist to make creative decisions during production. I wanted my tattoo artist to design the cover because I felt it was only fitting that he also decorate “my other body.” I wanted a different type of cover because I hoped Hustle could be a different type of book of poetry. Part of my goal in writing this book, which was based chiefly on my experiences, was to allow some of the people I grew up with, many who have been silenced by societal and internal forces, to have a voice. I don’t consider myself special because I attended college and wrote a book while others I grew up with were caught in the entrapments of our environment, especially considering some of the charismatic, intelligent characters I grew up beside. As far as your question, I think a poem is a type of permanence, like a tree—a seemingly fixed and static event that is actually moving and changing imperceptivity. I know what it is to stand at the base of a poem, and look up longingly at the branches hoping to climb to the top, just for the view. There are poets and poems that I go back to incessantly, those that their/there meaning or lines are engrained in me. Even if I know their permanence is an illusion, all sorts of reasons can push poems into oblivion; they feel forever to me, especially when nothing is permanent in our society. Memory is fragile.

EP: This slippage, this push toward change reminds of the moment at the beginning of “Motion and Rest” when you write, “stasis being the natural precursor of stagnation and death.” This poem is in paragraphs, unlike the rest of the book. It’s almost a paradox to say that lineation provides a kind of stasis for poetry, particularly across a collection, but I wondered how you thought of the prose poem’s function within the larger collection. Do you feel yourself ever needing to get out of something that “looks” like a poem—let’s say the prose poem, in this case—in order to write a poem?

DTM: The idea of “stasis being the natural precursor of stagnation and death” has dogged me my whole life. First off, we live in a society with puritanical roots extoling all things that exhibit good work ethic. That is part of our unavoidable programming. Both my parents got up and went to work everyday for long hours. Early in the morning, before I or the sun was up, or even me, my father got out of bed, and put on his boots, on and grabbed his tools. My mother kissed me than put on her lipstick before she went out the door. I walked myself to school, and I walked myself home from school. It was a joy to see them come home. For them, it was not joy when they got home but relief. Relief. My father would slip on his shorts and grab a beer, and my mother would begin cooking our dinner. My family was very affectionate, kissing and hugging freely. My father was not afraid to hug or kiss me, or tell me to go grab the belt. This is the experience of many people. My parents did not have to prod me awake to the world; as a child in elementary school, my toes tingled to the world. I wanted to know everything, somewhere along the line that changed. As I grew and began to hear other keys, I started seeing another way of life. A way of stasis—not working but hustling. Chemical dependency. Restrictions incurred by poverty. Disabilities. The things that I had been taught as a child were upturned. People didn’t have to always adhere to the societal norms, or couldn’t. All I had to do was step outside my door, and the stasis was there. But it was in my home too; but I had just never noticed it. I think somewhere around this time I began to be very malleable, as a person. So, Hustle, unintended at first, became a reproduction of my experience and personality. I am at times a bit rebellious in nature, so I wanted my poetry collection to be a bit unconventional. A few people told me that a lyric essay/prose poem couldn’t go in my collection. I never understood why it couldn’t. It was my collection. Now that being said, I can also be strangely anachronistic, towards what should “be” or “is” a poem, and this is something that I try and fight continuously, towards what should “be” or “is” a poem. But that is more just a function of my daily struggle to find balance. I am constantly changing, from hour to hour, filling and emptying various emotions, making a suicide soda of feeling that can’t help but influence my perception of the world, how I experience my day. I also have a tendency to be restless in nature, meditation has been helping with that, and Hustle has a sort of raucous quality that is exhibited in part by the various forms and modes employed through out the collection. My restlessness is also with poetry; often lineation is so difficult to control. A good line is hard to find. This form allowed me to do things that I couldn’t do in a poem. For instance, I was able to tell a small parable in the “legend” section. That was so fun to adopt the voice of such a rich tradition. Sure I could have done that in a poem, but it wouldn’t have had the same effect. I also thought of it like a sequence in construction, each part informing and supporting the others without linearity. Again my restless spirit.

EP: I’m so glad you put the prose poem/lyric essay in the collection! Were there ever any other things that teachers, readers, or editors told you that you couldn’t do in your work that you later did? I feel like this is a common experience for those who go through workshops. I’ve always felt like that was something we had to get over, to learn to resist. That was part of the workshop: to know when to reject advice. What do you think?

DTM: I have been fortunate to have wonderful teachers and mentors that I supremely respect, and I hope their influence shows in my work. A handful of awesome poets, of various ages and experience are generous enough to read my work and give me keen insights. Sarabande Books was outstanding to work with, giving me freedom artistically to create the book I envisioned. I have been surrounded by the illest my entire career. Or that’s what I remember. I have my memories of cultural, racial, class divides in workshop where I felt excluded because I am not the traditional creative writing student. My parents were working class and not college educated, so my milieu was not filled with fine art, but pop art, if any art at all. That being said, I’m very proud of my upbringing. I wouldn’t change anything in my life. The frustrations and setbacks I have suffered have proved my resilience. I’m proud of my accomplishments and grateful that my missteps weren’t disastrous. After writing strictly in metrical form for two years, I went through an experimental phase, in part, as a reactionary response to the two years I spent writing metrically, as if I could sit myself firmly into contemporary poetry by being the most radical writer instead of the stylistically conservative poet I had been performing as. All this is to say, Emilia, I am one obstinate mofo. I have an idea of the smell and sleekness of a poem, at least the poem I am trying to create at the moment because my idea of a “good” poem is constantly in flux. I try to never successfully recreate this idea of the platonically ideal perfect poem. What a fool’s task. But once in awhile I am saved by someone else’s poem. There is nothing better than reading a poem that I think shouldn’t work but does, often inexplicably. These mysteriously healthy poems only highlight my dysfunctional writing, my broken writing. And that is the conundrum, as fixated and self-involved I can be with my own poems and problems; it is the work of other writers that pushes me on, helps me persist. Early in my career I thought of workshop as a gladiator school, where my goal was to slaughter every other poet, and the professor, with my talent. To be the only poet standing. To survive. I wanted everyone, in any room I stood, to know that I was the most talented writer in the room, so I challenged every other writer and trampled their aesthetics, looking to raise my own banner over their poems. This competitiveness threatened to usurp my personality. At some point, thankfully, I gradually stopped this combative stance. Now I think of every journal or book I read as part of a large workshop, a grand conversation that has, thankfully, saw fit to include me. It’s hard to think of workshop negatively when so many poets are doing so many interesting things.

EP: You know, as I get older, I find myself becoming—and working at becoming—more generous as a reader. I think it’s easy, especially when we first start reading and writing poetry, to hem ourselves in, find a writer or a few writers that appeal to us and focus on how other writing is not the writing we admire. I think thoughtful skepticism is healthy in a reader, but I also think that polarizing aesthetics actually hurts poetry. And we need to do all we can to keep poetry relevant and alive.

I’ve been wanting to get my students to take poetry out of the classroom more and more by doing readings on the sidewalk or posting poems in public places. I’m going to ask my poetry students next semester to do poems in public project. If you were tasked with this project, what would you do? I’d love to share your ideas with my students.

DTM: That’s a beautiful idea you’re employing: love, inclusivity, thoughtfulness, fellowship, and harmony. I wish more people would join your tribe, so much of the news I scroll through feels filled with bile, brimmed with the reactionary fears of xenophobes. That being said, I am afraid of liking too many things in poetry, being inclusive of ideas of shoddy craftsmanship, faulty thinking. I am far from the sweetest chocolate chip in the cookie, but I worry why I like something just as frequently as I worry why I dislike something. That being said, part of my distrust of my predilections can be linked to my affinity to be receptive to so many ideas, which is a sort of refraction of Eliot’s opinion on personality. I have noticed a calcification in my thinking as I have aged in my personal life, but a loosening of my poetic aesthetics, but even then, again, I’m not sure if I just know myself and my motivations and fears better, in my personal life, or am I just becoming more conservative. And granted me becoming more conservative means I have slightly moved closer to the center from being fall-off-the-table to the left. In respect to poetry, I am really making an effort to, like yourself, read poems without trying to impose my aesthetic on them, though I’m not sure if that is possible, so it feels sometimes like I am playing a game of hide and seek with my own shadow.

I have done some poetry projects in the wild, so I have some experiential knowledge to back my answer to this question. I have done some poetry busking, showing up with a typewriter and writing poems by request for free. This experience can be amazing. It challenges me to not edit while I write and to let my words brew unfiltered. It can also be gratifying to write a poem and experience the reader, physically in front of me, actually enjoy the poem. Quite the feeling to see a reader beam with excitement over something you just wrote. However, there are also the people who feel entitled and that you owe them someone, people not respectful of the process or your time. Once, I was busking in a suburb, and a couple wearing socks and sandals, asked for a poem about the summer heat. I asked the couple what particularly about the heat they wanted me to write about, and the husband answered “Just write us a poem, guy.” Shit like this doesn’t sit well with me. So I entitled the poem, “Houston Summer Heat.” The poem consisted on one line, and is the only time I have used an ellipses in a poem. The line read, “Houston summer heat is like…”

I have always wanted to post guerilla poems on prominent American landmarks using projection equipment. Some of the poems could utilize video, but mostly just text on the landmarks. I also have always wanted to wheat paste poems across various cities. Posting tiles inscribed with poems on buildings is also on my bucket list.

EP: (“Houston Summer Heat”!)

You know, the “poetry in the wild” often forces poets to defend poetry. I really like that one article recently that suggested that no one would ever write an op-ed about “Is the symphony dead?” so why keep asking the question “Is poetry dead?” I think that putting too much emphasis on putting poetry in public places in some ways makes it seem or become ephemeral. (Think of ink running down a poem nailed to a telephone pole.) So, I think I’m of a mixed mind about it, too. Plus, I don’t want poetry to seem like visual noise—like billboards. I guess this discussion, in some ways, ends up being about poetry as a vehicle for social activism.

Do you think poetry can be political without politicized? What are the rewards and risks that poets undertake when using poetry for social activism?

DTM: I think that all poems are actively or innately political by their very nature, by being a poem, being an entity of the world about the world, written by something of this world. Poems are carbon based. Even poems that practice an askesis of purely nonpolitical agendas, overtly stating they are not political, are political in my mind. Every person is complicit to the larger body, the larger group, and not engaging in action is as meaningful as engaging. Because I recycle does not make me any less complicit to the ravaging this planet has, and continues to, endure. I think these are very important ideas that we as educated people know, but easily forget. I have to vigilantly attend my privilege as a man, or I will slip back into my training as a man, meaning misogyny and lesser forms of devaluing women. I consider my breathing politicized, especially if you consider the systemic violence to brown and black bodies, historically and contemporaneously. We are all political. That being said, I’m not marching down the street everyday, nor am I looking to free every goldfish from the bondage of the bowl. In poetry, often the larger political agenda forsakes the beauty of the poem, causing the text to go askew, for me. The quickest way to make me take the nearest pole holding the stars and stripes, and plunge into each of my ears repeatedly, is to announce that your reading will be political. This often epitomizes a lack of understanding of the nature of what is political, and by attempting to make a poem political, they often cease caring about the poem and become burdened by a message. Which is fine, all sorts of poems for sorts of audiences. But what does bother me, is poets that hide behind their politics. I think if you’re going to write political poems, or love poems— more power! But a poet must understand that these are difficult tasks, and writing with political subject matter, does not exempt a writer from criticism. Obviously there are sociopolitical angles, gender angles, class angles, and various other complaints and difficulties that arise from my perspective, which I concede; however, I do expect great poetry from my poets. Political or not.

Sarah Blake*: How do you see humor functioning in your poems or poems in general? What’s the most interesting or crucial thing about humor in poetry for you?

DTM: Well thanks, for pinch questioning, Sarah, and great interview BTW, and I really (gold)dig your book, Mr. West. Poetry is hard, man. I just threw shade on poets reaching for the political, and now I’m going toss vitriol at ironic writers who fashion themselves funny. Just jokes.

I think humor in poetry, isn’t as important as the greater function it serves in a poem or book, which is to set tonal variations within an established theme. One easily agreed upon axiom in poetry is Pound’s “make it new,” and while many will argue about what constitutes new in poetry, most would agree that introducing the surprising, the interesting is a way of “making it new.” Being funny is one way of making it new because it surprises the reader, introducing a slight variation in tone. Humor takes intelligence. Poetry takes intelligence. I like intelligence. For me, I lean towards themes that are important to me, thus my poems have a serious tone often, which for a whole poem or book, can make for an arduous read, so I mitigate slogging the reader with doom and gloom by having moments of lightness, brevity from weight of mind through a chuckle. I guess, in the end, what I seem to value the most is balance, a juggling of the heart and the brain. Humor embraces both the intellectual emotional facets of our personalities.

EP: Please provide us with a question to ask our next interviewee.

DTM: Discuss your process for creating an image in a poem. What is your favorite image in all of poetry? All of. Just one.

Emilia Phillips, interviews editor, is the author of two poetry collections from the University of Akron Press, Signaletics (2013) and Groundspeed (forthcoming 2016), and three chapbooks including Beneath the Ice Fish Like Souls Look Alike (Bull City Press, 2015). Her poetry appears in Agni, The Kenyon Review, Poetry, and elsewhere. For more information, visit her website:

Previous post:

Next post: