Tim Z Hernandez is an American writer, poet, and performer. His first poetry collection Skin Tax (2004) received the 2006 American Book Award and his debut novel Breathing in Dust (2010) was awarded the 2010 Premio Aztlán Literary Prize and was a finalist for the California Book Award. In 2014, he received the Colorado Book Award for his poetry collection Natural Takeover of Small Things (2013) and the International Latino Book Award for his historical fiction novel, Mañana Means Heaven (2013). Most recently he was recognized for his research on locating the victims of the 1948 plane wreck at Los Gatos Canyon, the incident made famous by Woody Guthrie’s song of the same name, which is chronicled in Hernandez’s documentary novel All They Will Call You (2017). Hernandez is currently an associate professor in the University of Texas at El Paso’s bilingual MFA in creative writing program. Following the publication of his latest collection, Some of the Light: New and Selected Poems (2023), he spoke to our Reviews Editor, Isabelle Baafi, about the role of witness and mindfulness in his work.

Isabelle Baafi: This collection brings together poems from over the last twenty-five years. How does it feel to look back at poems you wrote decades ago? Do you feel differently about them now?

Tim Z Hernandez: It’s a gift to have been writing poetry for twenty-five years and to have built a readership along the way. Assembling the poems gave me the chance to look back at where I was at in my life when I wrote them, which always offers a kind of appreciation, and even gratitude, for the journey. But also, I don’t spend too much time thinking about the poems themselves. I see them as more of a stamp in time, a marker of where I was and even who I was, both of which have changed so much over the last two decades. That’s the thing – once I write the poems and publish them and they’re in the world, I don’t remain too attached to them; they belong to the reader at that point. I do however like that they will find new audiences with the release of Some of the Light.

IB: You write in numerous genres and have worked with different artforms in the past, including acting and painting. What does poetry enable you to do that other genres don’t? What about a project or idea makes you think this needs to be a poem?

TH: Poetry enables me to think freely, not just on paper but also in life. It’s shaped me in more ways than I can count, and continues to play a vital role in my life. But I don’t approach it in the way that the question suggests. I don’t go into writing thinking this will be a poem.

Instinctually, I’ll either pick up a pen or paintbrush and start there. I write rather freely, exploring a subject in language and allowing it to take me wherever it wants to go. Eventually it’ll tell me if it’s a poem, or story, etc. For me it’s the process of discovery that I’m after. I don’t know my purpose until I begin to explore. This the real reason I’m not loyal to any one genre or medium. I see genres and mediums as different tools in the toolbox. My only loyalty – if there must be one – is to telling a good story, as honestly as possible. How that manifests is always up in the air, until it feels done. And even then, sometimes an idea will shapeshift with time. Years after writing a poem it can still become a story, or a song. The journey is never-ending.

IB: Fatherhood is a recurring theme in your work. How has becoming a father changed the way you write – whether in terms of your style, subject matter, or even just your writing routine?

TH: Fatherhood absolutely changed the way I write. My writing is much more fragmented, in relation to the amount of the time I have to myself, or to jot an idea down. I write while waiting for my kids to get out of school. I do a lot of writing while waiting, actually. But also, at least in recent years, the subject itself is focused on my children and my experience of single fatherhood. For me writing is way to make sense of the experience of living, so it’s a natural move for me to write about my children and about parenting.

IB: Spiritual reflection also resounds throughout your work; in ‘Brown Christ’ you find divinity while observing a farmworker in the San Joaquin Valley, and in ‘Instructions for the Altar’, you write: ‘There are no heavens where heavens await, / no pyramid but in the sternum, / only angels and corrupt deities now’. Which place or person inspires spiritual contemplation most for you?

TH: The place that I’m at. The moment I find myself in. The people I’m surrounded with in the moment. For me, poetry is closer to a meditation practice than anything else. With prose I tend to write more about the past, especially with the research-heavy books I’ve been working on for more than a decade. But with poetry, I tend to write more from the present moment, things that are happening in my world today, at this moment, this hour. I also write a lot about place, and the people who inhabit place, so that becomes part of my intentional observation. I value witnessing and listening, and being as wholly present as I can be with a moment or situation or circumstance.

IB: How did writing during the pandemic help you to process everything that was happening at the time?

TH: During the pandemic we had to remain inside, so I used writing as a means of going deep inside. That was complemented by my meditation practice. The pandemic was a useful time for me for many reasons. Mostly it offered a moment of pause, a parenthesis, to take account of my life, where I’d been and where I’d been hoping to go; the writing was a means of tracking and chronicling that. I know there was a lot of suffering and anxiety during that time, and that my situation was a very privileged one, since I was already working from home and had time to tend to my children’s schooling, but I also did my best to make use of it in a way that would perhaps recalibrate my life, and writing was an integral part of that experience. I didn’t initially envision that these would go on to become poems, again, because that’s not how I write.

It wasn’t until the second year of the pandemic, after I had received letters that my previous books of poetry were no longer in print, that it occurred to me I should find a way to get the poems back in print. I opened up my files and started to look at all the stuff I had written over the past several years, and that’s when the idea jumped out at me. That if the pandemic offered me a space to recalibrate my life, perhaps I could use these new writings as a cue to return me to old spaces, ideas, and situations in which the older poems could be revisited anew. It was an accidental catharsis.

IB: The refrain ‘we must remember this’ echoes throughout the collection – when you talk about social distancing, the detention of immigrant children, and the militarisation of the US-Mexican border. This, coupled with the frequent dates for titles, makes your work almost feel like a time capsule. Why do you think poetry is a good way to bear record? Do you trust poems about national events more than the ‘official’ accounts?

TH: As someone obsessed with archives, I believe anything we write down is a time capsule. Poetry is just one possible way to ‘bear record’, but I do think it has a kind of inherent power that perhaps other genres don’t, which is its unapologetic freedom. Ideas come through with less of a filter in poetry, which moves without loyalty to anything but the truth. I don’t think it’s a matter of either/or, though; I do think that poems offer us an alternative perspective to ‘official accounts’. Poems don’t pretend to have all the facts, as ‘official accounts’ do, but they do offer us alternate ways of looking at a subject, and that option is what is almost always missing in ‘official accounts’. In this way it’s honest, and less misleading.

IB: Complicity is a major theme for you. Is there a poet or poem by someone else that has made you reconsider your role in the world, your power to bring about change?

TH: Yes, complicity is a major theme in all my writing. It’s easy to point fingers. For me, writing has always been about polishing a mirror, seeing clearly what my role is in the issue at hand. And seeing how I can change my own life accordingly. What I look for in poetry is less about craft and more about subject, content, and honesty. I also look to poets who inspire me to think differently, or look at a subject differently. There is a long list of writers/poets whose work has in some way informed my own, and whose work I continue to greatly admire. Here’s a partial list of some writers that I feel my work is in constant conversation with: Juan Felipe Herrera, Lee Herrick, Anthony Cody, Mai Der Vang, Joseph Rios, Brian Turner, Sarah Campos, Andre Yang, Marisol Baca, Brian Medina, Michael Luis Medrano, Daniel Chacón, Daniel Grandbois, Jason McDonald, Rosa Alacalá, Sun Yung Shin, Juan Luis Guzmán, and others.

IB: In ‘Settling’, you write: ‘When I want to feel human / I clip my fingernails and pay attention.’ What is holding your attention these days, and how are you responding to it? Through poetry? Other artforms? Other ways of taking up space in the world?

TH: Love is front and centre in my life these days, in all of its variants. I imagine I’ll keep writing and creating art about it, for as long as I can. At the moment, this seems to be a natural step for me in the progression of what I’ve been writing over the last several years. I do believe – and have been saying – that everything I write is about love, but for the first time I’m diving into that claim/subject headfirst. I have no idea where these explorations will take me, but I do know it feels aligned with who I am now. It’s a scary prospect, extremely vulnerable, but that’s how I know it’s the right direction for me.

IB: In ‘6.9.20’, you write: ‘Help is not on the way. / We must remember this’, which I understand to mean that we (humanity) are the solution we have been waiting for; as Gwendolyn Brooks put it, ‘we are each other’s magnitude and bond.’ Was that your intention?

TH: I meant that we are responsible for our own health and safety, and for our own shortcomings, as much as our own progress. I mean this on the individual level, but also, on the communal level.

I try not to envision the future, it’s too big an idea for me. Or at least it’s not the angle from which I work. Instead, I imagine what my response will be to the very next experience I have, and how I can bring my best and most attentive self to that experience. I’d like to imagine that this is the only way a future will be shaped. By each of us taking accountability for our own actions. Not just the work of progress, but perhaps more importantly, the work of healing where we’ve been, and where our ancestors have been. You quoted Brooks, but I can’t help but also think of June Jordan’s quote, ‘We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.’ And I believe this is true, and that we must act accordingly.

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Spring 2024

Issue 107

The Spring 2024 issue features work by Mona Kareem, as translated by Sara Elkamel, as well as new poems by Mary Ruefle, Paul Muldoon, Khaled Mattawa, Marilyn Chin, Maria Stepanova, Timothy Donnelly, B.K. Fischer, Katie Peterson, Kimiko Hahn, and John Kinsella, among many others. This is André Naffis-Sahely’s final issue as poetry editor and it includes a valedictory editorial. Also featured are translations from Arabic, French, Hindi, Macedonian and Russian, as well as ‘House of Feels’, a craft essay by Dana Levin on sublimating pain through poetry, while Isabelle Baafi interviews Terrance Hayes and Tim Z. Hernandez.

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