Today’s featured poet, Juan Morales, resides in Pueblo, Colorado where he is acting Director of Creative Writing at Colorado State University-Pueblo, a small public university. I know Juan as a conscientious and hardworking poet as well as a supportive friend. Here, Juan discusses the nuances of putting together a manuscript for publication as well as how to balance work with writing poetry. First, this poem from Juan:
GARCILASO RECALLING A CHILDHOOD MEMORY, 1599
I used to play in Sacsayhuaman,
a neglected fortress that stretched
above everyone into tidy tiers. I felt
my smallness walking the overgrown trail,
gliding hands along smooth limestone, interlocking
perfection, which once walled out
enemies and elements. Every day I watched men haul
stones to town, quartering the angry spirits, leaving only
enough rock to defeat its height until a day
when wind rushed past like a broken army’s
murmur. I heard Sacsayhuaman call me
beyond its crenulated walls, to the doorway
into its long plunging arteries, passages under Cuzco,
where light waned and chambers carried
my voice deep into the labyrinth. I stepped inside,
to meet its haunted past, tumbling over
like the hunger of rockslides, the heat
of banked fires searing inside my innocent mind.
(Previously published in Pilgrimage Magazine)
1. Tell me about the publication of your first book of poetry.
The first book of poems, Friday and the Year That Followed, originally started as my MFA thesis at the University of New Mexico, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to work on refining it while I was in graduate school. I submitted the manuscript to several contests and was a finalist a few times. A short time after I defended my thesis and moved back to Colorado, I got a phone call from Tony Gorsline, Editor of Bedbug Press, who informed me I was the winner of the 2005 Rhea and Seymour Gorsline Poetry Competition. Over the next year, I worked closely with Tony on editing, revising, and shaping the book as Bedbug was a smaller press. He was very supportive and willing to give me a lot of input on the finished product, which helped me learn a lot about the publishing process. The book was published in 2006. Sadly, the press recently closed when Tony Gorsline passed away and with no one else to take up his cause. As previously mentioned, Bedbug was a small press and delivered beautiful books. Tony Gorsline’s passing is a real loss to the poetry community. He gave a lot and showed a lot of love for the written word. Since the publication of the book, I have spent a lot of time doing readings at large and small venues and whenever they present themselves in the vicinity of Colorado and occasionally in other states. The process of publishing and promoting have been an ongoing process that takes a lot of work and discipline, but I feel very lucky to get my book out there in the world.
2. What anxieties arise around putting together a manuscript and how to you negotiate them?
Assembling a manuscript can be an exciting experience, but it’s also pretty challenging and humbling. After putting together the first book and my continued efforts on the second manuscript, I find one of the challenges is keeping the work fresh after spending so much time with the poems. You live with the work so long that there’s a risk of getting lost in the revision process and overlooking the good work in there. Sometimes when I read older poems at readings, I surprise myself with how much I like the poem. With Friday, I had the experience of workshop and the publishing experience to figure out the right order, and I try to take those lessons into this new manuscript. The original organization had an elaborate theme that wove the poems together with some specific epigraphs, but my readers became very confused about who was involved in the poems, where the poems were taking place due to all the jumps in time and place. Ultimately, I simplified the manuscript with the organizing principle of geography: part one in Ecuador, part two following my father’s military career, and part three entering the supernatural. The grounded approached helped the complexities emerge with the moments and snapshots in the poems.
Now with the new manuscript, a book of encounters between the Incan empire and Spanish conquest, the anxiety for me comes with finding a way for the specific era of history matters to the contemporary reader while showing more of this world to the readers. Stylistically, I want to make sure the book is concise but that it’s also in the right order, but the current manuscript also demands a sort of chronology to it as well. I am working to navigate long sequence poems with concise choices inside them to give the reader enough time to pause and reflect on how these sections of poems become weaved into the larger tapestry. By nature, I am very narrative with my work, so I hope to touch the lyrical more as I go on. I guess the other anxiety is whether or not the intended organization will reach the readers or not, but I think all poets wrestle with this.
3. How do you balance the duties entailed with your position as Director of Creative Writing at your college and writing poetry?
I am finishing up my fourth year as the Director of Creative Writing at Colorado State University-Pueblo, which is a small public university. My role as Director requires me to teach in multiple genres, advise creative writing major and minor students, act as faculty sponsor for Tempered Steel, CSU-Pueblo’s student literary magazine, and also curate the Southern Colorado (SoCo) Reading Series. When I first started the position, I was overwhelmed with all the roles I had to play and the administrative side of the job, but it slowly came together. Over the years, I have come to learn that my writing time has to be balanced with my role as a teacher. Both are worthy pursuits and they overlap well. One way I navigate my writing is keeping notebooks everywhere and writing whenever time permits. I also make sure my courses overlap with my areas of interest and I also start every class I teach with 7-10 minutes of writing to help students get in the routine of writing and to keep me on track. I used to think writers should always be writing, but I know now that we can go through times when we don’t write and emerge unscathed.
4. Do goal setting and planning play a role in your creative process?
As far as goals and planning go, they vary depending on deadlines and other things going on in my life. I am always amazed when I see poets produce books and manuscripts so quickly, some of them being every other year or so. As far as my process goes, I don’t like to rush it; instead, I want the product to be as polished as possible. I’m a young writer so I still have a lot to learn. My writing process starts with handwritten versions, then typed, and then sometimes I go back and write them by hand again to see how I can compress them further and remove instances of reporting. I like to think that the poems can tell you when they are done, but I keep chipping away at them while also giving myself distance from them to return to them fresh.
5. What creative endeavors, poetic or otherwise, are in your future?
As I mentioned, the second manuscript is on track to be finished soon, so I hope to have that ready to submit to publishers in the near future. I also find myself writing poems and flash fiction/prose poem pieces that do not fit the new manuscript. The first two books have had specific focuses, so it’s exciting to write some poems with no plans or expectations, to see them grow organically into a project I can’t identify yet. I also hope to start working on a larger fiction project that has been in my head for awhile. That’s the fun thing about teaching so many genres at my university because the students and the different genres can be quite inspirational. Hopefully, more work will find its way into the world very soon.
Juan J. Morales is currently the Director of Creative Writing and Assistant Professor at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He is curator of the Southern Colorado Reading Series as wells as the student literary magazine, Tempered Steel.
“Friday and the Year That Followed” (ISBN 9780977197354) is available for purchase at Amazon