On Zombies, Loss … and Home Improvement: An Interview with Juan Morales with Laura Santi
Juan J. Morales is the son of an Ecuadorian mother and Puerto Rican father. He is the author of three poetry collections, including Friday and the Year That Followed, The Siren World, and The Handyman’s Guide to End Times (UNM Press). His poetry has appeared on/in CSPAN2, Copper Nickel, Pleiades, Poetry Daily, Verse Daily, and others. He is a CantoMundo Fellow, a Macondista, the Editor/Publisher of Pilgrimage Press, and Department Chair of English & World Languages at Colorado State University-Pueblo. Follow him on Twitter @ChairmanJuan.
LS: How did the process of creating a collection of poetry work for you — did you write the poems individually and then find common themes, or write them with the idea of this collection in mind?
JM: I’m obsessed with horror movies — and especially zombie movies — so I’ve always wanted to write zombie poems. Then, at the same time, I was going through the end of a relationship. The emotional tragedy of that relationship ending seemed to match the end-of-the-world apocalyptic feel of things nicely, if you want to put it that way. Similar to how writers always play with metaphor and putting two things together, I started to put those poems together in a work. From there, I was also writing home-improvement poems, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I wondered if it would all click together, and eventually it did.
LS: What inspired you
to create some of your themes, specifically those about the destruction of the
world as we know it? Were you inspired by any movies or books, or were they
based off of the direction our world is going in now?
JM: I can definitely create a laundry list of horror movies that kind of inspired me. Even in its ninth season, I still like The Walking Dead. Even though some zombie purists say they’re not zombies, 28 Days Later is one of my favorites as well. Harking back to one of the originals, there’s also Night of the Living Dead, which I think is 50-years-old this year. What I love about horror and sci-fi is that they allow us to talk about political subjects in a different context, where you think you’re getting a low-budget horror movie, but that horror movie has this allegorical layer underneath it where you’re talking about race or gender. Regardless of what time period you’re in, there’s always a feeling of how things are changing and that the apocalypse is looming, but it does seem that lately the stakes have been raised with environmental issues and our current administration. For example, the last few weeks before the election, during readings, I was joking, “If you don’t go out and vote, my book’s going to come true.” It definitely allows political issues to be discussed and explored in a surprising way.
LS: Can you talk a
little bit about this idea of the handyman and how he plays a role in your
JM: I can’t remember how early on the title came about, but it goes back to that theme of process and how you’re always learning how to do things. I thought it was important to give the book a process-based title but then kind of complicate it with this idea that you’re preparing for the end. As far as the idea of the handyman goes, I don’t think it was deliberate, but I think there was an intention to give myself some emotional distance from the stuff being explored. It also gave me a chance to distinguish the poet from the narrator in some of the areas, if you will.
LS: In several of
your poems in this collection, you reference moments from your childhood and
upbringing. What inspired you to write about those and revisit them in this
JM: My first two books focus a lot on cultural heritage and
my cultural upbringing in the United States in what some would consider
first-generation. My father is from Puerto Rico and my mother from Ecuador, and
my second book spends a lot of time discussing being of that heritage and not
speaking Spanish. In this book, I wanted to get personal in a different way,
and some of these poems from childhood eventually found their spot. I grew up
in Colorado Springs, so there are definitely some Colorado Springs poems in
LS: With the division of this collection into three parts (Demolition, Reanimation, Inhabitation), what was the process like in creating those sections?
JM: Whenever I have enough poems for a collection, I lay them all out on the floor and just get a lay of the land. I start to look for small nuanced connections and associations and then larger ones, but the collection itself definitely has a progression where you’re moving from dark to light. If you’re dealing with something called the “end times,” you’re kind of expecting that it’s eventually going to end in destruction and mayhem and so forth, so I thought I would try and surprise people with that turn. I always treat sections like mini-books that kind of blend together with the other ones. With Demolition, it’s all about the poet’s/narrator’s life coming apart and the failure of a relationship, but also leaving a home, which is always a hard thing to do. In Reanimation, I’m trying to be clever and not only connect it to the home improvement where you’re trying to build a house, but the introduction of zombies is also on the table. When it comes to good horror or sci-fi, you always have to introduce the possibility that anything can happen, so your readers are looking out for it. Inhabitation is the hopeful section where new love is discovered, so it’s about closing out the dark stuff, whether that be accepting the end times or doing everything in your power to resist the end times.
LS: For the poems based
off events in your life, how recently did you write those poems after the
JM: Some of them were really fresh, real time; some of them might fall into that category of “we write to heal ourselves” — not even necessarily to heal ourselves, but to better understand what we’re going through. This book took a long time to come out; it was under contract in the winter of 2016, but there was no rush. It not only gave me time to work with the publisher to sort things out, but to make it the strongest book possible. It also allowed for more reflection to occur. That also allowed me to look at things more objectively or as objectively as possible, so you can show the emotions but get some distance from them as well. Another way to look at that question is that when it’s writing about personal stuff, you definitely consider your comfort zone, but you’re also risking sentimentality, so this was my effort to do that as a writer.
LS: What are you
currently working on?
JM: I have three projects that are in a similar place, and I’m hoping for some time to discover which one takes the lead. I have an idea for a novel related to a mummy because I keep joking that mummies are finally due for their rise. The Tom Cruise movie that came out one or two summers ago definitely set things back. I’m also just writing these short horror pieces because I want to continue to get to know horror a little bit better. A lot of them are starting with pop culture song titles, and then I write a horror piece inspired by them. For obvious reasons, I think the Handyman book has given me more courage and inspiration to be directly political, so I’m writing a lot of political poems. I’m also writing a lot of poems about the city of Pueblo, CO where I live. I want to write honestly about Pueblo, about the problems we have, but also about the beauty people don’t know about that goes on in this community. So I’m working on poems that are like a love song to Pueblo.