in Conversation with
Blas Falconer is the author of three poetry collections (Forgive the Body This Failure, The Foundling Wheel and A Question of Gravity and Light) and a co-editor of two essay collections (The Other Latin@: Writing Against a Singular Identity and Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets). He is an NEA recipient and a winner of the Maureen Even Award from Poets and Writers. His poems have appeared in Poetry, The New York Times, and Harvard Review, among other literary journals. He is the poetry editor for The Los Angeles Review, teaches in the MFA program of San Diego University, and lives in Los Angeles. It was illuminating to have this discussion with him on the occasion of his stunning third collection, Forgive the Body This Failure (Four Way Books, 2018).
Cynthia Atkins: Can you render for us how the body has ‘spoken to you’ as a poet, putting to words the many forms and incarnations?
Blas Falconer: The body is a recurring image in the book, particularly in the first section where the body is failing in the literal sense. But it is also important in the second section, where I consider estrangement between parent and child. In the third section, the body betrays the pubescent boy, who doesn’t understand the changes he’s experiencing and the desires that come along with those changes. In the fourth section, where I write largely about place, I’m thinking of where the body belongs, where the body feels safe and loved. When I started writing poems for this book, I didn’t set out to use the body as a recurring image, but at some point, I recognized that it allowed me to ground various expressions of longing and grief in a definitive place, hopefully creating an overarching sense of cohesion among the various lyric utterances.
CA: One cannot avoid noticing the utmost compression in your poems. The silences are so threaded and seem so much a part of the music and breath and landscapes of your lines and language.
BF: I’ve written three books, and I think that each is different stylistically because my methods had to change to accommodate the changes in my life. I mean that, as my life changes, I must find different ways to write, and these new ways of writing force me to compose differently, to write in different modes, to lean on different devices more heavily, so the new pressures to keep poetry central in my life have also kept poetry new and exciting for me.
I started writing the poems for this book during a time of great transition. I had just quit my job as an Associate Professor, something that I had worked toward for so much of my life, and moved with my family to Los Angeles, a city I had only visited once. I didn’t know what was next for me. Also, my boys were getting older, and I often found myself at a loss when trying to help them with their own enormous questions about the world and life: death, injustice, bigotry, longing. In the poems, I spoke to myself and to my boys about these uncertainties. I sought a kind of clarity that the spare poem and the quiet voice offered.
CA: It’s often risky to write about your loved ones, thus exposing someone else’s privacy in the process of disclosing your own truths. In “That is your story,” these lines render the weight of this knowledge. “This /is your share / of the world’s grief, what you must carry, and / which I cannot bear/ for you.” Can you flesh out how this process presents itself to you?
BF: After the poem is written, I do wonder sometimes if I’ve betrayed people who have been exposed, and then I weigh if it’s a poem that I’m willing to share. Sometimes I don’t. Most narratives in the poems are intimate but not gratuitous in what they reveal. For me the personal story is one of many vehicles to convey a shared human experience. For example, in the poem you cite, I’m addressing my son’s suffering, but what I’m saying is that this is everyone’s story.
CA: I wonder if you could articulate the way in which your heritage and culture have informed the work, by way of impacting the body, mind and spirit.
BF: My Puerto Rican heritage and culture have impacted my work in countless ways. My grandmother was the only one in my family that spoke meaningfully to me about poetry, and she did so by talking about Puerto Rican Independents, Julia de Burgos and Juan Antonio Corretjer. She spoke about these poets the way one might speak about fallen heroes. Talking about their poems, she taught the importance of image, of figurative language, and how poetry can speak to matters beyond the poet, though the poem may address the human experience through the personal lens.
CA: In “Gesture,” you say, “the body also speaks/ its own language.” How does our body language reveal and disclose our secrets?
BF: As a child, I took particular pleasure in listening to my mother when she spoke because so often she seemed to take pleasure in expressing herself. I liked reading her gestures—the tilt of her head, the eyes rolling, the small laugh, the flip of her hand—which often infused the words with more meaning, sometimes even contradicting what she was saying. I learned how much the small gesture can communicate, how it can betray us, too. When I’m writing and especially when I’m revising, I often gravitate to the smaller gesture, the most revealing, cutting away what might dilute its message. More often than not, that small gesture captures everything that I want to express.
CA: In closing, I wonder if you could pick a poem from the collection, one that gave you particular challenges in composing and discuss for us your aesthetic choices with regard to subject, form, metaphor, and language.
BF: The poems “Heaven” and “Apology for My Son Who Asks About His Mother Once More” were particularly challenging because they were situations that I struggled to fully understand when I experienced them, so writing the poems was a way of trying to grasp the struggle that my son was experiencing after our two senior dogs died and later when he considered his own adoption, while also examining my own very real limitations as a father.
In both cases, I struggled for a long time to find a way into the poems, a way to capture the anguish. In the case of “Heaven,” the breakthrough came when I let my son become the speaker. In the case of “Apology,” after struggling to work on this poem all day and much of the night, I went for a walk at dawn, defeated, and on that walk, I saw the opening image, “The branch, bent to the ground, as if under the weight of its own white/ blossom, is// like a sadness I see/ growing inside you.” I ran home, and the poem flowered from me as if it were there all along.
In both cases, I had to get out of the way. In both cases, the shorter line and white space gave me a me a lot of control over the pace of the poem, how quickly or slowly I wanted the reader to process each bit of information. Enjambment helped to magnify tension, to keep the reader in a state of suspension, of anticipation. The combination, in my mind, at least, conveyed the experience of small epiphanies, a progression of hard-won revelations.
Apology for My Son Who Stops to Ask About His Mother Once More
The branch, bent to the ground as if under the weight of its own white
like a sadness I see
growing inside you. What can
I do but tell, again, how
Under the fluorescent light, she bent
Over your swaddled body, her face
Pale against her dark brown hair,
Yours dark against the pale sheet.
That is your story. This
Is your share
of the world’s grief, what you must carry, and
which I cannot bear