In Conversation with
Ed O'Casey is the author of Proximidad: A Mexican/American Memoir, published by Broadstone Books. Individual poems have appeared or are upcoming in Danse Macabre, Tulane Review, Wilderness House Literary Review, Euphony, Cold Mountain Review, Northern Liberties Review, NANO Fiction, and South 85. He lives in Wisconsin with his wife and daughter. In the following conversation, he discusses writing about the cartel war in Juárez, balancing personal with persona, how life near the border has impacted his poetry, the docu-poetry revision process, and more.
Octavio Quintanilla: Proximidad: A Mexican/American Memoir is a hammer to the back of the skull. It hits hard without being sensationalistic, a great accomplishment, considering it’s your first book, and considering the type of subject matter that you write about: the cartel war in Juárez and how it affects its citizens as well as people living on this side of the Border, for some, just a stone's throw away. I like how you control your voice by mixing genres. Can you tell us about the hybridity of this book? Was it something you started out wanting to do, or something you discovered along the way?
Ed O’Casey: It was a bit of both. Carmen Giménez Smith introduced me to some documentary poetry, specifically Jena Osman’s The Network, Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom, and Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary (among others). It was these three books that set in my mind the idea that poetry can still be powerful in documentary form. At the start, the poems for Proximidad were persona poems, characterizations of people suffering from the drug war in Mexico, living and dead. The sad truth is that they were incredibly reductive and, I’m ashamed to admit, filled with stereotypes. I think the only poem that survived the first phase of development was published under the title “Rape Tree.” It’s basically a catalog of descriptions of women’s underwear—the language was so suggestive of rape that the poem almost wrote itself (except that the version in the book is the 18th revision!). That poem became a sort of flagship for me, a way that I began learning how to write this book that was trapped inside of me. At that point, Coal Mountain Elementary began to heavily influence what I was creating (the entire book is a compilation of interview excerpts, photos, and chunks of the American Coal Foundation’s “Lesson Plans”). I started to research more closely the state of the drug war as reported by journalists and scholars. I found that in many cases, what I read resonated with me. I recorded as many as I thought might help me express what I was trying to internalize about the war for the border. In all, I cut about 60 poems from this project, so what you see in the book is actually less than half of what I’d compiled/written. Eventually, I was led to the idea that I should privilege my own perspective more. Hence the more personal moments of memoir and verse that invade the documentary. I have to thank Richard Greenfield and Forrest Gander for that. Without that perspective, the book never would have come together nor found a home with Broadstone Media.
OQ: What aspects of the book changed, if at all, by privileging your own perspective more?
EO: First of all, thanks for the praise from your first question. I forgot to make note of it. I hope the book hits readers as hard in the consumption of it as it did me in its creation.
What changed more than anything was my willingness to experiment with taking on someone else’s perspective. I wanted to avoid creating manufactured personae as much as possible, particularly because that tends to lead to stereotyping and trivializing.
Privileging my perspective also led to the inclusion of narrative sections about myself, my personal experiences, and most importantly telling the story of my daughter’s birth. I’m really glad I finally conceded to that because I think her story opens the book up to a segment of the readership that might have remained otherwise shut out of it.
OQ: Secondary sources help you create a larger narrative about the narco-violence in Juárez, a place that, as you write, you used to visit by crossing “the hump of the bridge…to visit family, buy food and handmade goods, to wade through Saturday night crowds of young men and women pooled together for the cheapest party available.” I remember those days, too. Crossing, not to Juárez, but to Matamoros or Reynosa and feeling, overall, safe being tourists for a day or a night. Those days, to my knowledge, are gone. You mention that once you started to research what you read resonated with you. What, exactly, resonated? Other than the proximity of El Paso to Juárez, what was it about your experience with the Border that made you realize that you had a book “trapped” inside of you on this particular subject?
EO: What particularly resonated with me was an event that I retell in the book. I was in a class with Carmen Giménez Smith, and she handed around a book set called I Live Here.
It’s a collection of four documentary works (published by Pantheon graphic novels, but it’s not a graphic novel per se). One of the books is about Juárez, primarily about the topic of femicide, and the abuses of power that tend to target women on the border.
I had been living away from the border for almost twenty years, and I knew something about how Juárez had changed in the time I was absent, but I Live Here was able to show me in a way that made it past my rational defenses, the part of me that keeps me distant from tragedy in order (I guess) to protect me from unnecessary suffering. I could not get that book out of my head, and I knew from previous experience that if I wanted it to leave, I needed to write about it.
I started by writing persona poems about femicide victims, some of the reductive ones I mentioned earlier. I read as much as I could find on the topic of femicide, and someone directed me to Molly Molloy, a Border Studies specialist from New Mexico State University. She is incredibly knowledgeable when it comes to what’s happening in the drug war. She redirected my thinking, showed me that, though the femicide that takes place in Mexico is truly awful and a huge women’s rights issue, the majority of victims in the drug war are men. They are tortured, mutilated, and murdered with a frequency far beyond that of women. Molly Molloy broadened the scope of my research by helping me to reinterpret the drug war in Mexico as a human rights violation.
I wish I could tell you that I can remember the moment I realized there was a book inside of me. I’ve always been a pretty prolific writer (not necessarily good, but prolific); hence I’m pretty much always working on several projects at once. I wasn’t sure how far I could take the femicide topic, but once it expanded into the drug war, and I started injecting my perspective as someone who grew up on the border (when the border was much safer), I realized that I needed to find a way to pare the manuscript down. The first draft of this manuscript was something like 108 pages long (as opposed to the 75-page final draft).
In my evolution as a poet, I started to get sick of talking about myself. In fact, I didn’t want to include myself at all in this manuscript originally, but I was convinced it was for the best. I agree with that now, but it was a hard fight. I think that sometimes the tendency toward poetic navel gazing damages the art of poetry. I don’t tend to read poetry that tries to illuminate some aspect of the self; I’d much rather hear about the world as it is, in all its beauty and horror. I’m really glad to see a tendency in poetry toward the political. There’s a great power in what we do when we write, and I can choose to channel that power toward understanding myself (yawn), or I can channel it toward a better universal understanding of the human condition.
That, poetry’s political life, is what resonated with me. I’m not specifically trying to be political in the book, but I do feel the responsibility to illuminate the situation on the border, colored, of course, by my upbringing (and privilege).
OQ: You say that you had lived away from the Border for almost twenty years—did you spend your formative years there? Are you done writing about it? Or are there aspects of the Border that still haunt you and you want to keep exploring?
EO: I lived along the border from about 2 until I was 16, so yeah, my formative years. I don’t remember living anywhere beforehand, so I’ve always identified El Paso as the city in which I grew up. And almost invariably, in conversation, I talk about the time I spent in Juárez visiting family, shopping, eating, partying, etc.
I have no idea if I’m done writing about the border. I really doubt it. It’s such a part of my makeup that it informs much of my writing. Lately, I’ve been writing more about my cultural identity—growing up on both sides of the border, son of an immigrant, but someone who appears completely white. It’s tricky to locate myself within any single category of culture. I am Mexican, Hispanic, Texan, Irish, Southern, Midwestern.
In a way, the border with Mexico is a metaphor for the two main competing sides of my personal culture: White (American) and Hispanic (Mexican). There are times when navigating from one side to the other feels like dealing with immigration. And recently, the two are colliding inside of me, sometimes violently. I think that if I can wade through the turmoil in myself, I’ll have some pretty topical (and hopefully interesting) material to pull from.
OQ: For the most part, you give us small doses of text on the page—by this I mean, there is quite a bit of white space, a lot of room for the reader to breathe. What led to these structural decisions? What effect did you anticipate these decisions would have on the reader?
EO: At first, these poems were all walls of text. I wrote in the very lyrical, line-oriented, somewhat narrative style I’d been cultivating for years, from my undergraduate years even until now. I was as concerned with the line as I was with content. As I amassed more material for the book, I found much of that wordiness was creating unnecessary redundancy in the overall project.
Many of the poems had worthwhile individual subjects, contexts, images, etc. but there was a thread of editorializing that ran through nearly all the works. I was at times saying the same things over and over again, repeating the emotional content, at the cost of the emotional content. Though I’d like to take credit, the idea to spread these poems out into the field wasn’t my idea to begin with. Several of the people who’d been helping me with the manuscript agreed that the poems needed to be bare, sparse.
I think they were right. I wouldn’t say that these poems can stand completely on their own, but with minimal content, they create an emotional texture in the manuscript. In context, they have emotional energy. For instance, page 39 contains a poem that has about 24 words. I’m certain that a great poem can be constructed from 24 words, but this poem on its own would likely not stand scrutiny. In the context of the book, I have total faith in it, but I’d never try to publish a poem like that on its own merit.
I hope that these field poems will up the emotional stakes for the reader. If I’ve done what I set out to do, each moment in the text will build on the last, so that a short poem which consists of a few concrete images will hang itself on the context created by what was read previous, adding weight (and discomfort) to the read. This is a book which I hope will be read all at once, draping itself slowly over the reader’s shoulders.
OQ: For a poetry collection such as this, rooted in docu-poetry, what is your revision process like? What are some of the issues that you had to deal with when writing in this mode? I am thinking about the act of paraphrasing text or presenting it verbatim, for example. Is it often a matter of copying and pasting? Or is there something else, a deeper relationship with the research and reading you are doing?
EO: My revision process was extensive. I mentioned earlier that I cut something like 60 poems from the mountain of material I was left with once I’d written everything I thought the manuscript needed. I had to carve an image of the book out of what was in front of me. I could have continued writing for hundreds of pages.
Consequently, the first problem I had to address was focus. The drug war, immigration, border politics, femicide, the cartels...all this was too much. I had to figure out what I was going to shed light on and what I was going to ignore. That meant my reading list was immense. I perused way more information about the border than is probably healthy to digest in a short period of time, all with an eye toward selecting fragments that had something to say about the topic overall.
I decided relatively early on that I wanted to quote my sources verbatim. I selected relevant portions of text and did my best to avoid destroying their context. Later in the project I saw that I would need to cut some of the source material up in order to keep it fresh and hopefully to provide a more lasting emotional impact.
All italicized text in the book is directly quoted from source material. Some of the quotes have been chopped into smaller pieces, but most of them are quoted segments of longer texts. I should note that many of them were translated from Spanish, primarily by Molly Molloy, so an argument could be made that they’re not exact.
So yes, the researched text is essentially copied and pasted, but every segment has a deep relationship to the overall project. I have folders filled with excerpted texts that never made it into “poem” form, and other folders full of poemized documents that didn’t make the cut, because they either fell outside the scope of the project or they were redundant.
OQ: The narco-war has given rise to a narco-culture. There is an abundance of movies, Mexican soap-operas, corridos, books, etc., that depict or narrate the extreme violence associated with it. By writing about it, are we not adding to the fear, and the negative narrative, of the Border that has permeated our consciousness? As a writer, how do you keep yourself from fetishizing this violence? In this context, what purpose do you want your book to serve?
EO: That’s a tough one, and something I struggle with a bit. I worry that this book only adds to the negative stereotypes already pervasive in our culture. I hope that this never serves as just another reason why someone would be unwilling to go to Mexico. But someone will probably take it that way. More than one someone, I bet.
In order to keep myself from fetishizing the violence, I had to really be consumed by it. I researched all the violent incidents, photos, videos, etc. that I could. I took my time and tried to coexist with each, and that was not easy. Over time I’d become less and less interested in violence in any media, and staying with those images created a directed, conscious discomfort. But I had to do it. I was driven to it, and the only way to get that compulsion out of me was to follow it to its end.
Because Juárez is part of my personal identity it was different sitting with the violence coming out of there. It became almost personal. In some cases, I would recognize the locations where bodies were found or placed, or I would see in my past the faces of mothers and widows trying to get past police lines to their dead loved ones.
But I did all that from a place of comfort and safety. And when I finally internalized my privilege and perspective, I saw that the book was about the border that exists within me. I have a sense of belonging to Juárez, but I can safely distance myself from its violence, though its many citizens cannot. This book was written from a place of insulation, and I hope I’ve been able to capture a sense of that place: where I am physically safe but psychically disrupted and threatened.
I hope that the book will allow the reader to sit in that same place of turmoil. I was surprised at my actual experience of the border once I’d had the chance to thoroughly interrogate it. I had been praying for empathy, and I got it. With any luck, I can transmit a bit of it.