Interview with Xavier Cavazos on Barbarian at the Gate —
June 16, 2014
Xavier Cavazos is the author of Barbarian at the Gate, selected and introduced by Thomas Sayers Ellis as part of the Poetry Society of America’s New American Poets Chapbook Series. His debut collection of poetry, Diamond Grove Slave Tree, is forthcoming from Ice Cube Press in 2015. Cavazos has taught creative writing and composition at Iowa State University and currently teaches in the Professional and Creative Writing Program at Central Washington University.
Christopher Nelson: In addition to your success with Barbarian at the Gate, you’re also an award-winning slam poet. Tell us about those two arts. How distinct are they for you? And how have your concerns for the stage informed your work on the page?
Xavier Cavazos: Slam is poetry driven by music and emotion; image comes later, if ever. The page, for me, is an image-driven construct where the aesthetic of the word or line drives the next delivered image or idea. The page should be discursive in aim.
Nelson: Your title, Barbarian at the Gate,—is this an allusion to Cavafy’s poem? Coetzee’s novel? Or do you intend it to be free of those associations?
Cavazos: Yes, the title is an allusion to Cavafy’s poem. I wanted to announce a separation between myself and the academy I was entering into. I wanted to announce to them (the academy) I’m the barbarian at their gate (American poetry). And to be afraid of course!
Nelson: One motif in your chapbook is the American tradition of racism and exploitation, from the Native American genocides to African slavery to the contemporary circumstances around immigration and labor to the acquittal of George Zimmerman. Do you feel that there is a scarcity of poetry addressing such subjects? And are poets more obligated to confront political topics than the average person?
Cavazos: Richard Hugo said a long time ago that you can take the most absurd stance in American poetry and still be considered legitimate in the academic world. That statement is true! But you can’t tell the truth in American poetry or else you’ll get swept to the curb.
Well, that’s not true; now you can write about historical events as persona poems and write about real racism just as long as it happened a hundred years ago. The academy is okay with that—just not real racism that’s happening right now. This is changing, however, with people like Dan Vera and organizations like Split This Rock.
Right now, there is a scarcity of poets who are willing to tell the truth when it comes to politics, race, religion gender, art and on and on. Even myself—I keep observing that I’m already trying to craft poems that I think the so-called academy will like. And that is a bunch of crap, trying to play it safe.
I’m not just saying this person’s name because he was the judge that selected my manuscript, but I believe Thomas Sayers Ellis is one of the few true voices we have out there right now. Him, Natalie Diaz, Dan Vera, Beau Sia, Bao Phi, Crystal Williams, Patricia Smith are people who really do it for me!!
Nelson: The merging of the political and the deeply personal is a strength of your collection. For example, the death of your father looms large in some of these poems, as does Barack Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Does poetry facilitate this balance between—this collision of—the personal and the political?
Cavazos: Great question. You know, I think it really is the saturation of other early teachers I had, in addition to writers I admire. Ginsberg, Bob Holman, Steve Cannon, James Bertolino, Lucille Clifton and a poet named Jim Hanlon all where very political in different ways, but I learned so much from those people that it shapes the way I enter into poems. It really is the role of the poet to be political. Ginsberg instilled that belief in me.
Nelson: Your style is occasionally surreal. What do the images of drug use and dreams allow you to do in your narratives?
Cavazos: It allows me to work in narratives that break often from the ordinary sequence of language that keeps language a system, and when this is done right, language becomes alive again, and in that moment of slippage, language can do anything, even reimagine a nation!
Nelson: In his introduction, Thomas Sayers Ellis suggests poetry can reimagine the nation. What do you think? Do poets have enough “reach,” enough influence, and enough imagination?
Cavazos: I believe the only ingredient needed to reimagine a nation is courage! Now, will that courage become/translate/transform into action? That depends on the people!