In 2023, the Academy of American Poets invited twelve poets to each curate a month of poems. In this short Q&A, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal discusses her curatorial approach and her own creative work.
Poets.org: 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, Vanessa Angélica Villarreal. Vanessa is the author of Beast Meridian. Vanessa, welcome, and thank you for joining me.
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal: Thank you so much for having me. It’s such a delight to see you.
Poets.org: Likewise. Likewise. Let’s jump right in. How did you approach curating Poem-a-Day for the month of October?
Villarreal: That’s actually a great question. I was so excited to receive the month of October as my curation month. October... It’s the season of harvest. But it’s also the season of transition and death and all these goth themes. I’ve been writing a lot about ancestry and archives. I’ve been really obsessed with Jacques Derrida’s concept of hauntology for a few years now, which is defined as this nostalgia for lost futures. But it’s so much deeper than that. I feel like that definition doesn’t really get to the meat of what it’s really about, which is grief, and grief as a sort of mourning of or as a relationship to history.
Hauntology is this sort of archival anxiety for what we’re forgetting, what has been forgotten, or is being forgotten—or being forgotten ourselves in the aftermath of violence—and specifically as this longing for what could have been. It’s from this project called The Specters of Marx. But really, what hauntology is is, like, this feeling that we’re being haunted by the past, that the past is ever present and sort of affecting our every day as this very real presence that has real implications.
And I thought that was such a wonderful invitation to think about what haunts us still. I think we’re in a space, in this particular political moment, post-COVID, our political landscape where the past is asking for a sort of daily reckoning from us. I thought, “Who better than poets, really, to confront these reckonings?” So that’s where I came from with my approach.
Poets.org: If you had to direct our readers to one poem in our collection at Poets.org that you haven’t curated, what would it be, and why?
Villarreal: So, you know, when you asked me this earlier, I gave you eight poems. But I think the one that stays with me still is “A Small Needful Fact” by Ross Gay. I’ve been teaching that poem, I think, since the year it came out, and what I love about it... Because so many of my students, and so many of the people I workshop and have workshopped with, really want to figure out how to write about violence, state violence, anti-Black violence, police violence, migrant violence, and how not to aestheticize violence. What I think Ross Gay does so beautifully... And I’ve also been thinking about this concept of sympoiesis, which is this decentering of the human and collaborating with, or worlding with, nature as this way of reframing art to get out of the Anthropocene. And so, rather than focusing on just solely human interactions, we are expanding our worldview into [a] deeper time, like our relationship to animals, our relationship to time, our relationship to the consequences of our actions, and the interconnectedness of the earth.
This poem performs that so beautifully. Rather than focusing on the violence that contributed to Eric Garner’s death, rather than looking at the violence and the death, he focuses on the life process of trees and their symbiotic relationship to us as they process our exhalations and create oxygen in order for us to breathe, and how that symbiotic relationship actually amplifies the injustice of Eric Garner’s death by focusing on his time as a parks and rec employee.
It’s just such a wonderful... It’s just doing so many things at once. It’s decentering the human and taking this broader view. It’s reframing Black life as part of all life, as vital to all life. This idea of… The detail of his very large hands planting gently into the earth just really makes his body so vulnerable in the text. It’s just a beautiful poem, line by line. I love how it’s just one continuous sentence. So you have to take several breaths to read it. I mean, it’s just so brilliant through and through. I could teach it for hours. As you can tell, I’ve taught it a bunch. So if that’s the poem I have to point to, that would be it.
Poets.org: And just for the edification of our audience, Ross Gay served as the Guest Editor of Poem-a-Day in October of 2018. Who are you reading right now?
Villarreal: Who am I not reading right now? [laughs] I’m in the midst of writing my own essay collection. I think I would have to say I’m reading a lot of nonfiction right now. Specifically, I’ve been reading poets writing nonfiction who are just doing such incredible work. I think, as poets, we hybridize the world around us in this very particular way to where, like, the cultural criticism and braiding of memoir through this lyric, experimental mode is so present and so vibrant in a lot of the memoirs and nonfiction that I’ve been reading within the last couple of years. Like, Camonghne Felix’s Dyscalculia is a really beautiful, just lyric, meditation on neurodivergence, mental illness, relationships, Black womanhood. Just a really incredible piece of art. Hanif Abdurraqib... I mean, just the most powerful intellect, really like, in the last few decades, in my opinion. Raquel Gutierrez’s Brown Neon. Just really sharp art criticism, cultural criticism. Cathy Park Hong. Obviously, Minor Feelings. I put two non-poets, who I consider honorary poets: Carmen Maria Machado and Ingrid Rojas Contreras, whose books, In the Dream House and The Man Who Could Move Clouds, are, in my opinion, a sort of lyric, nonfiction, experimental verse. In my opinion, I consider them poets even if they might not identify as such.
Poets.org: What are you working on now in your writing, teaching, and publishing life?
Villarreal: I’ve been focusing on writing my essay collection, Magical Realism, which is forthcoming in 2024 from Tiny Reparations Books. It’s a speculative critical memoir project that is looking at video games and fantasy and music as a way to re-theorize Latine subjectivity and the Latine experience.
I’ve also been working on my second poetry manuscript for a very long time now called “Extinct and Endangered Florae of the Americas.” That is taking a look at colonial botany and colonial medicine archives to sort of look at a history of violence on women of color and connect it to our sort of emergent political crises today. And I just had the honor of teaching for Tin House’s Summer Workshop. And I’m teaching for the Ashland MFA, low residence MFA. And, yeah, hopefully, I will defend my dissertation this year. We’ll see what happens after that.
Poets.org: I would wish you luck, but I don’t think you need it. [laughs] There’s so many wonderful things going on. I’m really looking forward to our audience seeing this curation from you. Thank you so much for spending this time with me and for your contributions this October.
Villarreal: Thank you so much, Mary. This has been such a huge honor.