In 2022, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo discusses his curatorial approach and his own creative work. Welcome to the Guest Editor Q&A, hosted by the Academy of American Poets. I’m Mary Sutton, senior content editor at the Academy, and I’m here today with the Guest Editor for October, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo. Marcelo is the author of Dulce and Cenzontle. Marcelo, welcome and thank you for joining us today.

Marcelo Hernandez Castillo: Thank you so much, Mary. It’s truly a pleasure and an honor to able to participate and curate this month’s Poem-a-Day series. I am a huge fan of the series and have been since it’s start, and it’s truly surreal that I get to have this chance to curate. And it’s an honor to have you, so thank you so much for taking the time to do this for us. So, how did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for October? 

Castillo: So, as I was approaching this question of how to curate, I was thinking about and interested in poets who wrote against the limitations of borders, nation-states, documents, and citizenship. And that didn’t necessarily mean that they wrote about those particular things, but that they wrote through them and that they wrote from those intersections. And where that ultimately ended up could be a poem about a father, about loneliness, about flowers.

And I guess it was a process of expansion, to expand what we would normally think of a poem that is somehow or another affected by borders, nation-states, documents, citizenship. So, some more closely aligned with those themes, but others took widely different expanses, widely different views, widely different images, approaches. And it was an exercise in, “What do you make of this? How do you walk away from the intersections of citizenship, of nation-states, and documents?”

And so Eduardo Corral talked about loneliness and we have Vanessa Angélica Villarreal with her poem, “Angelica Root.” So I guess it was a good way of thinking, “How can I expand what we would normally associate with these particular themes?” And just show that poets write through these themes in different, varied ways. So you’re interested in hierarchies of power? Yes?

Castillo: Mm-hmm. And that interest, I think, is very timely today in light of both Queen Elizabeth’s funeral today, which has shut down London, and the devastation brought by Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico yesterday, leaving millions without power almost exactly five years after Hurricane Maria struck—a disaster from which the island has not fully recovered.

Interestingly, I don’t know if you’ve observed this, you probably have. In numerous major American newspapers today, news of the queen’s funeral is the top story, while the devastation in Puerto Rico is secondary, if it’s covered at all. All of this is very recent, of course, but how much were you influenced by current events and news of the world while putting this curation together?

Castillo: I mean, I don’t think you can step away or look away from a lot of the injustices that are happening as we are writing poems, as we are reading poems. To think of these poems in a vacuum, existing in a vacuum without the context of their genesis, without the context of the history, not just the history which they talk about. Again, sometimes more overtly, sometimes more subverted. But it’s a great luxury to be able to read poems in a vacuum, to not have to consider the history of the monarchy in England and how that has touched the lives of... And how that has affected millions, if not billions, of people.

So all of these poems are written in a place and in a time, and even with my students, I ask, “What is happening outside of the world of the poem?” And that’s why I think the publication date is really important. When I was looking back through the curation of the [Poem-a-Day] series in general, I was noticing I was really interested in the poems that were written, I guess not written, but submitted for publication when they appeared in the series right before the lockdowns of Covid. And how hindsight is in 2020, the demarcation of those publication dates, I think, were really important to me.

And what was happening in the poems that were [being] published when the protests around the murder of George Floyd was [sic] happening, both as a response at times, but also in their existence being a response that maybe the poet didn’t intend; but because of their placement in that time, in that place, in that context are, nonetheless, read through that. So, if you could direct readers to one poem in our collection at that you haven’t curated, what would it be and why?

Castillo: Yeah, there’s so many poems that I truly admired, and so many people who I wanted to tap to contribute. They had already appeared before, but I’m always... I think there are different reasons a poem stay [sic] with me. Some are, I guess, meaningful simply because of the information that they have. They teach me something new. They teach me about fungi, they teach me about borders, they teach me about climate, or they offer a new way to see something that I already knew but that I hadn’t thought of before.

These ideas that exist in the common vocabulary or in the cultural consciousness, but are allowing me to see it in a new way. This is one kind of one thing that I remember. I forget where he said it, but Yusef Komunyakaa said something about clichés and that a good poet knows how to turn a cliché so that it feels new. Others because they make me feel something I hadn’t felt before.

That’s why some poems stay with me. They introduce me to, not necessarily a new feeling, but allow me to associate a feeling with a new subject matter. And that association I hadn’t made before, and others still, they validated or confirmed something I had already felt, but perhaps hadn’t admitted to myself. A quiet kind of feeling that existed deep in my consciousness and it was brought forth. So I already knew it, but it was highlighted by that poem. And one of those poets is Richard Siken.

I was in grad school when I first read Crush. And I don’t think that I’ll ever experience a book of poems the way I did when I first read Siken’s Crush [from] the very first poem of “Scheherazade” to the last poem, “Your name is Jeff,” or the last of the poems towards the end, “My Name is Jeff.”*

Every time I read a Siken poem, all of those things I listed above, are being done at the same time. I’m learning something new. I’m being taught to feel in a different way. I’ve confirmed something that I’ve already felt. And so, when I saw Richard Siken had also contributed to the [Poem-a-Day] series “Real Estate,” that was kind of no difference in [sic] how I experienced every Richard Siken poem where he says, “There will be no confusion. The dead will make room for me.”

I met him once and I was truly, truly at a loss for words. And the prose poems that he’s published after Crush, some of which have appeared in his second book, War of the Foxes. And then this poem here in Poem-a-Day, “Real Estate,” really remind [sic] me of what’s possible, how complicated even simple things can be, and how we take common knowledge for granted.

And when I met him, he said, “I can imagine a deer in my head, but I can’t produce one when I have to draw one.” And he says, “Does that mean that I really don’t know what a deer is?” And, you know, I hope he’s better? He had some health problems and yeah, I’ll forever keep any of his poems dear with me. First, I’m so glad that you make that comment, or reiterated that comment, from Komunyakaa about clichés because, often, clichés are regarded as taboo in poetry. One wonderful poet who comes to mind in being able to turn clichés on their head is Kay Ryan, whose work I’m sure you’re also familiar with. And, for those who don’t know, Richard Siken’s Crush was the 2004 winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize judged by Nobel Prize laureate and former Academy Chancellor Louise Glück.

Siken has also published in Poem-a-Day, as Marcelo mentioned, in December of 2020, August 2014, and February 2013. “Real Estate” was curated during December 2020 by Brian Blanchfield, our Guest Editor for that month. Eroticism is a common theme in Siken’s work, and you’ve also explored the erotic in your own work. Are there other poets or poems who [sic] write in this vein who interest you?

Castillo: Yeah, I mean, definitely poets who I’ve long admired—Sharon Olds writing in this erotic sensual mode. And I mentioned him just previously, Eduardo C. Corral. But there’s also other poets who approach the central approach, the erotic, in many different ways. Natalie Diaz’s Postcolonial Love Poem, winner of the Pulitzer Prize two years ago, [and] is one of these books that long, in a way, that is continuously interesting but also familiar.

It’s continuously strange and familiar, at the same time, that I know these feelings of longing that she has, but that she says it in such a way that it still feels new. And that’s one of the reasons I’ll return to a lot of her poems over and over again because it reminds me of what is familiar. But I experience it almost as if I’m experiencing it for the first time. And so, you know, When My Brother Was an Aztec, Natalie’s first book, Richard Siken, Eduardo Corral… These books taught me how to love. I guess love is instinctual and we kind of know it, but it’s difficult sometimes to put it into words.

And I guess my new work has that, but it is more attached to the present day. As I was mentioning, they don’t exist so much in a vacuum. When I was writing my first book of poems, I was in a very different space. I was still undocumented and I felt like I couldn’t say a lot about myself. So the poems really had to maneuver visibility and invisibility, what I could say, what I couldn’t say, both in terms of my queer identity and also my documentation status. This is a book in which I came out with to my partner. And it’s strange that that happens through a book. Strange and wonderful, if I might add that in. Who or what are you reading right now?

Castillo: I just met Daniel Borzutzky for the first time, but we’ve known each other for a bit. We had just been friends on social media and kind of running in the same circles. So I knew I had read Lake Michigan, and I spent some time in Chicago recently and had participated in a reading series that he curates. And we got to talking about his last book titled, Written After a Massacre in the Year 2018, published by Coffee House Press.

And I was surprised, almost even a little embarrassed, with how many intersections his book has with some of my new... Some of the work that I’m dealing with, too. And I think it’s also, to the previous point, that a lot of the poems that poets respond to [in] their times…and Daniel Borzutzky… This latest book is very much responding to the violence of the nation-state, the violence of carceral punishment.

And even the new kinds of violences [sic] that are arising because of increased methods of A.I. technology, of surveillance, and what he notes of as predictive analytics, in which A.I. is deciding how much of a threat somebody could be. And through that, setting limits of parole, tracking, and so on and so forth. So this data-driven kind of style is something that I was really, really interested in and was also looking at.

And it was really a pleasant surprise to see him wrestle with a lot of the same questions of, how do we talk about unspeakable cruelty? How do we write after unspeakable cruelty, like the massacre that happened in Pittsburgh at a synagogue, which was his hometown? And I’m asking myself that same question: how can I write after what was witnessed in 2018 by the forty-fifth administration, separating children, and many of whom have never been returned? That really messed me up. That really messed me up, and I’m trying to find my way back to writing after hearing some of those audio recordings. For those who are interested, the eponymous poem from that Borzutzky book is available on, both in textual form and as an audio file. It was also featured in Poem-a-Day in October 2020, which was guest edited by Ari Banias. As you mentioned, Borzutzky’s poem deals explicitly with the border conflicts, with the dehumanization of immigrants of color, and the United States’ almost collective refusal to grapple with immigration and displacement as moral issues instead of political ones.

And of course, you have written extensively about your own experience as an undocumented person growing up in California in your memoir, Children of the Land, particularly being confronted by an ICE agent in your own home, as well as trying to perfect your English while growing up. So, in this effort to blend in better, you mentioned. And there was this tension, it seems, in your early life between visibility and hyper-visibility, which you mentioned just a little bit earlier in this interview. I want to talk a little bit more about that theme. How much has that theme of visibility versus hyper-visibility influenced this curation and how much does it influence your work going forward?

Castillo: I think that, personally for me, that has changed a lot. And I think, particularly since the 2016 election, because after that election, I felt like I didn’t have the luxury to be misunderstood. I didn’t have the luxury to be misread or a lot of things that I took for granted. You had offices like the Office of Denaturalization [the Department of Justice’s Denaturalization Section] that were mining for possible mistakes that were done twenty, thirty years ago with people being stripped of their naturalization.

And I guess my personal reaction to just this very particular kind of violence that was done to immigrant communities was [in] being more plainspoken, being more direct and equating, decreasing the distance of the metaphor between A and B. That A could no longer resemble approximate B, but that A had to be B. And with my memoir, I couldn’t, I guess, hide behind metaphor in a way that I did in my first book of poems, of abstractions or lyrical language.

Being nonfiction, I had to write plainly, I had to write directly. And it was very difficult, a new mode that I had never really written in. And I wrote the memoir because there were things that I just needed to say, but I couldn’t say in poems, still. So, I knew that I needed to say the things that I needed to say and talk about my life in a way that I have never done before, both in conversation or in my writing.

So I had to turn to a memoir, I had to turn to an essay, and let the memoir form dictate how I wrote. And I guess that leap has now led me to putting myself on the page, my body and the people around me. So it’s been a journey in learning how to talk about myself. And I learned from poets like Daniel Borzutzky. And that doesn’t mean that my poems didn’t talk about borders or immigration; it’s just that I had my own way of talking about them.

And it’s not a better way. There isn’t a better way, it‘s that I was able to talk about what I needed to talk about at that time. And that’s kind of my curation, is that there isn’t one way to talk about immigration; there isn’t one way to talk about borders, and to showcase so many different approaches to these ideas. Really, I wanted to challenge people’s assumptions of, what are the ways in which we talk about borders? Yeah. What are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?

Castillo: It’s been really difficult to write in the pandemic. At the beginning, I felt like we all thought things were going to stop and we were going to have a lot of time to write, to work. We were all in lockdown, things were switching over to Zoom, to virtual learning. And it was a steep learning curve for teaching, but also for writing, how to write in my house. Something that is... It might be familiar to a lot of people, where they nestle into their homes, into their environment and can write there.

But I think because of my history with immigration, my history with the ICE raid that happened early on, I’ve always been very uncomfortable being in my house for long periods of time. I’m learning to undo that. And the new work that I have has really been an exercise in patience.

It started with a collaboration with the University of Arizona’s Art for Justice program through the Arizona Poetry Center. And they have [had] two fellows each year for the last, I believe, five years who are tasked with writing about mass incarceration and how they see fit in how, what their approaches are. So, you had poets like Patricia Smith conducting interviews. You had poets like Nicole Sealey producing erasures from police reports.

And, for me, I came at this at the tail end of, okay, what is a way that I can approach the effects of mass incarceration on my communities? And for me it was, I’ve been directly affected by this, both in the immigration system and the penal system.

But what I was tasked with was thinking about mass incarceration and providing stories. And so, thinking about what can I contribute to this conversation. Not necessarily that [that] wasn’t done before, but how can I use my unique intersections to provide certain kinds of stories in order to back up what immigration advocacy groups are doing with quantitative data? So, how can I provide qualitative experiences to supplement the quantitative data?

And, in researching this, I was looking at congressional records. I was looking at memos by groups like the GEO Group, public memos that have been released and, you know, things as... This is kind of where me and Daniel Borzutzky’s work intersected, in the fact that, what did I do with the data that I was presented with, the facts that I was presented [with], and how do I turn that into art? How do I put that into a poem without seeming gratuitous or without erasing parts of that story?

For example, the corrections company, the private for-profit corrections company that deals with immigration detention centers, but also private[ly]-run prisons, GEO Group, is now publicly listed as a real estate investment trust, and they have rewritten into the congressional record what the definition of…the corporate definition of land and ownership. So, per the congressional record, what is defined as land and what is defined as ownership has been lobbied. And that statement in itself, I felt, was important, that there was a story behind the data.

And so, the new work that I’m doing, I guess, breaks up into a triptych: it’s the data, the fact, the predictive analytics, as Borzutzky puts it. The rationale for our engagement with it, like ideas of beauty, circumstance, wounds, being legible. And this is from [Ruth] Behar’s author-saturated text versus author-evacuated texts.* Methods that reduce anxiety, and looking at these numbers, at these facts, not as an inconvenience, an ethnography, a testimony, so on and so forth, and not repeating the suffering in order to preserve the suffering.

So this new work, I guess, breaks up into that triptych of the facts from the world—the data, the rationale with our engagement with it, and then a creative rendition. And at the moment, I can’t really reconcile all three into one in a way that many other poets do and whom I admire greatly. It’s a stepping stone that I think I’m approaching cautiously because I haven’t done it in poetry yet. I deal with facts and I deal with more direct points that are in time, in space, in place in my memoir. But this is the first time that I’m doing it in poetry.

And what do we do with quantitative data? Because we somehow tend to attribute the greatest value to quantitative data as a way of getting something done. In rhetorical arguments, in defense even of someone’s humanity, that quantitative data is what gets the job done. But, as poets, you know, it’s the stories that you can’t really quantify, that really is our medium.

So I’m trying to reconcile the three modes: the lyrical, creative rendition of what it is that I gather from these, just the rationale for how I engage with them. 

And for example, that there needs to be, or that there is, a 34,000-immigrant detention bed mandate expected to be filled at all times. So, yeah, this is kind of the new work that I’m building towards and it’s been about a year and a half, two years in the making, and I’m OK with taking another two years on it; I’m OK with thinking through these things and not rushing towards publication, I think, in a way that I did for my first book. I know hopefully, one day, I could do a book length poem, and this [could] be a book length poem. That’s a dream. I greatly admire poets who are able to think in that large term, but maybe having written a memoir that is very, very long, now I can start thinking of that broader scope. We’ll be looking forward to that. Thank you so much Marcelo, for this very rich conversation.

Castillo: Thank you Mary, it’s an honor.


*The poem to which Castillo refers in Richard Siken’s Crush is actually titled “You Are Jeff.”

*Castillo references anthropologist Ruth Behar’s book The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology That Breaks Your Heart (Beacon Press, 1997).