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2005 Writers Forum
Carlos Martinez ~ with curator John Mifsud

Carlos Martinez lives in Edmonds, WA, earned an MFA at Antioch University LA, and teaches literature and creative writing at Western Washington University. He's been published locally in Cranky, Crab Creek Review, Poets West Literary Journal, Jeopardy and 4th Street, as well as the local anthologies Vox Populi (1999 Seattle Poetry Festival), Pontoon #5 (Floating Bridge Press), and The Sound Close In (2004 Skagit River Poetry Festival). He's also published nationally in Morpo Review, Yawp, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, Black Bear Review, Poet Lore, and Firefly, as well as in the anthology An Eye for an Eye Makes the Whole World Blind: Poets on 9/11. Carlos Martinez photo
photo credit:
dean wong
In 2000, he was one of two featured poets at Poetrymagazine.com and in 2004 he was a featured reader and participant at the Skagit River Poetry Festival. His chapbook, The Cold Music of the Ocean, was published in August 2004. In 2003, he took second prize in the americas review poetry contest. He was recently selected as a 2005 Jack Straw Writing Fellow by Jack Straw productions in Seattle.
Click on the ears below to listen to excerpts from this conversation.
Read and listen to writings by Carlos Martinez
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Personal Background Current Writing Future Writing Teaching
Inspiration Other Projects Place Writing Habits
JM


I'm sitting today with Carlos Martinez. Why don't you tell our listening audience a little bit about yourself-your background, where you're from, maybe when you came to writing…
CM










Well, I was born and raised in the Spanish Harlem section of New York City. I attended Catholic grade school, and then I attended Catholic high school for two years until I found that to be unendurable and transferred to public high school. Went off to college, never really returned to the city for very long after that, moved out here in 1979, and have been living in the area since then. I came to writing in my junior year of high school. I was taking an honors English class, and I fell madly and deeply and profoundly in love with my English teacher. And so I started to write her "poems," which I would give to her. And she was very kind, she would correct them and make suggestions as to how I could improve and write better poems, and I've been hooked since then.
JM


So what are the circumstances today that encourage you to write? What do you need to have around you, what time of day, where does it occur for you?
CM




I live in a busy household, and so most often what happens is I'll get up in the morning before everyone else, and I'll have my routine, turn the coffee pot on, feed the dog, feed the cats, and then I go to my computer and I compose on the computer. And usually if something's going to come to me it's most likely to come to me first thing in the morning.
JM So how does inspiration come to you?
CM






Oh, it's all inspiration. It just comes. What was it that Randall Jarrel said? "A poet is an individual who walks out into a thunderstorm hoping to be hit by lightning." And I think that very well describes what my process is. I don't try to force things to happen, but I allow myself to be open to whatever it is that strikes me in a certain way, that will generate that first line. And that first line will generate the second line, which generates the third, which generates the fourth, et cetera.
JM So what gets that passionate circle of energy going for you?
CM








Getting lost in the words. I mean once I start writing…as I described it once in one of my workshops when I was in graduate school: I'm not there for that first draft. The reality is that it is happening, and the ego, the 'me' has stepped back. And I'm not present and conscious until I begin the revision process, which is very focused. It's not "automatic writing," I wouldn't try to describe it as that because I do try to guide and control, but I don't try and dominate the process. I let the flow happen, just to see what comes out. And sometimes it works, and a lot of times it just plain doesn't.
JM


Your poems cover a range of subject matters. Which are the ones today that you're writing that you feel have juice for you, that have some pull, some draw to sort of capture your attention?
CM




Lately I've been writing a lot of erotic poetry. That's just where I happen to be right now. So I've been doing that. This whole weekend I've been working on a poem about going out on my deck and looking up at the stars at night, and what a transformative experience that is, to be there and just to be bathed by the universe.
JM

You were a second-place winner in the America's Review Poetry Contest-how was that?
CM













That was very bizarre. I had never entered contests, I sort of have a philosophical problem with them. I don't see poetry as being a competitive field. I don't think the creation of beauty can be competitive. And I don't know what possessed me. I just decided that I had written some poems recently and I was going to send them in, which I did, and then I promptly forgot that I had done that. The magazine apparently experienced a number of problems, and didn't judge it in a timely way. So a year went by, and then I got this letter saying congratulations, you've come in second place in this contest. And I thought, who are these people? What are they talking about? I totally forgot. I do keep records of what I send out but I rarely refer back to them. So I went and looked it up. It was a complete and total surprise. Jane Hirschfield was the judge, one of America's preeminent poets. And so it was quite an honor to have been chosen as second place.
JM Especially by her.
CM

Especially by her. I met her at the Skagit River Poetry Festival last year, where I read. And that was a thrill, that was a privilege, and I thanked her.
JM Will you read a poem for us at this time Carlos?
CM



Sure. Given that I mentioned that I'm from New York City, let me read this poem called "When it Snowed in Spanish Harlem." When I was a child I remember the snow was just ferocious, it would come down and there would be feet and feet of it covering the city.

<reading>
Listen to excerpt
JM




You have a strong body of work that you presented, and also some work that you wrote new since you've been selected to be a Writer, and there's a variety of subject matters in that. But do you feel there is some subject matter out there waiting for you? Is there a turn or a direction that your next poem or series of poems might take?
CM




I don't know. My hope is that I'm always open to something new popping up, but I don't try and guide that process. If I were to describe my process, I write about those things that come before me, that interest me, that catch my attention. And they vary from time to time. The subject matter changes. There's a progression.
JM

Several of your poems reach back to childhood memories. Can you speak more about that?
CM









It's interesting having come out into the much larger world, in retrospect, looking back at that whole experience growing up in New York City, which in many ways is very parochial, and provincial, and insular, and isolated. And when you're in that context, especially growing up in that city, you think that New York is the universe, that it encompasses the totality of everything. So stepping beyond that experience, it gives the memories of having grown up there a special significance for me. Because-it wasn't a state of ignorance, but it was a state of not being aware as fully as I am now. And I like to revisit those experiences to mine them for meaning. And so I write about them.
JM So, are you in a position now teaching poetry?
CM










I am. It's an interesting thing to do. For me it's a career change. I've been teaching poetry writing now for three years, after having gotten my Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Antioch University of Los Angeles, a wonderful program. And then decided that I didn't want to do what I had been doing before, and in fact I might have an aptitude for teaching, and I really wanted to find out if that might be the case. I was fortunate enough to be hired at Western Washington University, another wonderful school, and have taught there for three years. The student body is very bright. There are many, many talented fledgling writers that attend that institution, and I'm fortunate to have had many of them in my classes.
JM

And how would you describe your process with them as you try to nurture or steer or support their writing?
CM

















I try to convey to them my passion for what I do. And to see if in fact, as they explore what their art might be-it might not be poetry-if that passion also exists within them. And if it does, I try to equip them with those things that they need in order to begin their trajectory as poets. How do you write a poem? "What is poetry?" is the first question I ask them. What is it? You can't write it if you can't define it. And people really don't have a very good explanation, they sort of fumble around-it's about personal experience, or it's about rhyme. But nobody really can quite put a finger on it. And I insist that we come up with as precise a definition as possible to serve as our entryway into this new experience. I get people who are brand new at it, I teach introductory courses, so I try to be very careful with them, to be nurturing. It's scary for them in many instances, coming into a writing class for the first time, having to share their work and their feelings and their experiences. So one of my primary goals is to make it as safe as possible. And I tell them it's fun, it's supposed to be fun, it's play. I tell them that words are Legos, and what do you do with Legos? You make interesting patterns and shapes, combining different colors. And that's what poems are. They're Lego constructions.
JM Do you ever have the opportunity to share your writing with them?
CM



Sometimes. They ask me to read my stuff to them, and I tell them, "I'm not here for me, I'm here for you." I tell them when I'm reading, where I'm reading, and they're more than welcome to come hear me. But classroom time is their time, it's not my time.
JM

Well fortunately this afternoon there's a different circumstance, this really is your time, so I'm gonna ask you to read another one if you would.
CM





Alright, I'm gonna read this poem called "Ontology," and it has a dedication. It's for two very good friends of mine: Jim Bertolino and his companion Anita Boyle. Jim teaches at Western also, he's been there for twelve years. And when I first arrived fresh out of graduate school, fledgling teacher, he took me under his wing and treated me very well, was very kind to me. He's also a very good poet. He has an international reputation.
<reading>
JM One more.
CM







Okay. "Between the Formal and the Open." I know that there are people who don't like poems about poetry, but I'm interested in those issues. I'm interested in the issues that consume contemporary poets, and one of the contemporary debates has to do with traditional classical formal poetry that's metered and rhymes, and if you don't write that kind of poetry you're not really writing poetry. And on the other hand you have poets who are open form poets, which has been the tendency for the last thirty to fifty years, and so this poem concerns that issue.
Listen to excerpt

<reading>
JM

I'm wondering if there's anything left unsaid. What might be your closing words?
CM



I'll tell the audience what I tell my students. In college, for example, we read lots of Shakespeare and Milton and Pope and the classics, because that's supposed to be the best writing that ever happened. The best writing ever, in the English language, is taking place today.
Read and listen to writings by Carlos Martinez
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