Art Talk with 2017 NEA Literature Fellow David Tomas Martinez

By Paulette Beete
portrait of poet David Tomas Martinez
Photo of David Tomas Martinez by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Sometimes you go to junior college just to play basketball and then, years later, thanks to the continuing encouragement of a series of mentors, you find that you’re not only a published poet teaching at a prestigious university but you’re also this close to having your PhD. At least that’s how it happened for 2017 NEA Literature Fellow David Tomas Martinez. As he explained when we chatted by phone, “I was fortunate that people recognized any talent that I had, and pushed me to work harder and to take it seriously because I didn’t recognize the path.” Martinez’s poems have appeared in journals such as Poetry, Crab Orchard Review, RHINO, and the Oxford American. Sarabande Books published his first poetry collection Hustle in 2014, and will publish his second, Post Traumatic Hood Disorder, in 2018. Martinez’s poems explore ideas of identity and how what we think of as the self is always in flux. He interrogates his own life in order to create art in which others can see their own reflections. As he told us, “My role as a poet is to indict myself in my poems. If I indict myself and show how my own experiences have fault, maybe my reader can see themselves in me.” Here’s more from Martinez on his circuitous route to poetry, his initial struggles with his subject matter, and what receiving an NEA fellowship means to him.

NEA: What’s your origin story as a poet?

DAVID TOMAS MARTINEZ: I was a teenage father and I was in a gang, so my route to college was really circuitous. I went to the Navy. Then I went to Job Corps to paint houses, and that was what I thought my life was going to be. I had played basketball in high school, and [someone at Job Corps] was like, “You know, you should think about playing basketball in college." I tried out [at the local junior college] and they were like, "Come play basketball." I showed up the very first day without enrolling for classes…. I had no idea of what was really necessary to be in college. I [enrolled in] a potpourri of classes, and I took a poetry workshop for no real reason except it fit into my schedule. 

When I transferred to San Diego State, I studied with a poet named Glover Davis. He was really enthusiastic about what I was trying to write about. I'd write poems about listening to my stereo while driving, or playing basketball…. He was like, "Man, you have a natural affinity for language and for poetry in genera” I didn't really take poetry seriously as far as [it being] a career, or as—what he would call it—a vocation in the religious sense of the word, a calling. I just wrote.

At some point Glover Davis asked if I'd like to get a master's degree…. I was like, "Eh, I guess, man. I don't know. What do you do with that?" He was like, “You teach college. You can be a professor. You can teach creative writing, or you can teach high school English and you'll have a master's degree. You can make more money."

That was when I really began to take poetry seriously—as a life, and as an idea of what you could do. I began to consider myself a poet, and I started to assemble all of these affirmations that I was a poet… coffee cups that said "poet," belt buckles that said "poet," t-shirts that had anything to do with poetry. A notebook that said "Publish or perish". [I collected] anything that would mirror back to me my inner desire to create something. Then I started getting poetry tattoos, things that were a reflection of my desire to take this seriously. Because I think there's an idea around being a poet that you just sit around in a cafe and you talk about poems. It's just like anything else: you wake up and you go to work. You go to work at your desk on a poem.

NEA: If you had to have a mission statement as a poet, what would that be?

MARTINEZ: I try to express a voice for those who have felt silenced, who have felt marginalized. You know, Latinx, Chicanx [voices]. I identify as such, and I'm a man, and I come from a working-class environment. These are part of the intersections of my identity, but I want to be able to engage with all sorts of people…. Really, I think what I'm trying to do is to locate versions of myself. I'll never find the definitive sense of who I am completely. In that way, identity is like happiness, or a sort of Heraclitean idea of the river. So elusive, and there's so much fluidity. We don't live in a fixed state.

NEA: Where do poems start for you? What's your writing process like?

MARTINEZ: I first think of an idea. I want to engage with this. I want to engage with my ethnicity…. I want truth. I want real, with a big "R," even though, that's a fluid idea that's constantly changing. It goes from an idea to a line. I do my best to really stay in the moment, so I write a line at a time. While I might have a bigger idea, somewhere I'm trying to go, I try hard to not map out and have a determined destination to my poems, allowing my mind to travel where it wants to. Later on, then I can craft. That has gotten easier, where you already have that internal voice saying, "Ah, no, no, no." At some point it becomes really honed and sharp, that censor. That is really the tricky thing, right? In one instance you want to have the courage to be as imaginative as you want to be but still tight with crafting and tight with word choice and line and lineation. How does one mold those? How do you get an idea and not spit platitudes? It’s so irksome to me when I read poems and they're filled with platitudes. Generally, I think we live in a time where as much as some folks may say, “Oh, poetry is dead!" I think the opposite. I think this is a golden age. So many people are writing and so many people are writing at a high level. There are so many different sort of voices, voices that I find expressing a reality and perception that are different from mine, but we share some sort of contiguous ground that I can see myself in…. The poems and the poets that I'm most attracted to are the ones that, at the end, I feel as if I've learned something about them. And by learning something about them, I learn something about myself.

NEA: You mentioned that idea of looking for the "real." I know that some of your poems are autobiographical, yet poetry is fiction. Can you talk about the relationship between memory, fact, and truth in your work?

MARTINEZ: My poems are autobiographical. All of them are. I just try not to hold fidelity to “This is the way that I see the world. Or this is what happened.” I think as soon as you start to impose that on your reader, you're going to have a fixed destination. There is no North Star guiding your poem to the land of wonderment and poet laureate-ship. There isn't. You have to write with a flexibility. There are poems where I'm trying to steal a car, and these things really happened to the people that I know. That is why giving that voice to folks is not necessarily about what has happened to me, and sometimes I will conflate experiences and ideas into one character, one speaker. Balancing how to put my own experiences into a poem can be one of the most difficult aspects of it…. When I was coming up, and I was searching for Latino, Chicano poets, they were out there but I didn't know who they were because my mentors—and the institutions that I studied at—weren't as aware as they could have been. In one way it was a burden because I was like, "Wow, there's nobody writing poems about my experiences." I was like, "I don't care about daffodils." (laughs) I felt like there was a void in that way, and that was difficult. But in other ways, because I didn't have someone [about whom] I could directly say, "That's my experience; they've already said it. They've said it perfectly, I don't need to," it made me want to write, and it gave me also the flexibility of my notion of identity.

NEA: In a previous interview, you talked about the poems that eventually became Hustle. I thought it was interesting that you said that you initially resisted that book’s subject matter. Can you talk about that, about accepting what your story is, your obsessions?

MARTINEZ: Initially, I didn't think that my experience warranted poetry. I was in a gang. I was a teenage father. I sold drugs. I was involved in things... These [types of things] aren't in poems. You don't write a poem about trying to steal a car. You write a poem about holding up a rose to the moon. That's what poetry is. My second mentor after Glover Davis was Sandra Alcosser. At some point I was writing experimental poetry and I was really messing with linguistics and language and words in the relationship to sense and to meaning. Sandra was like, “This is, you know, it’s fine. But you have a wealth of personal experience that the vast majority of people don't have. Why are you not writing about these things?" Because nobody wants to hear that shit. Who wants to hear these things? No one's going to read this! And if I do, I'm going to immediately get ghettoized, and that's what I don't want. I already feel that way; I don't want to feel that way on the page.

We have to accept ourselves, who we are. It’s okay to realize that we have moments of weakness, that we have moments of fault. That is alright, and we need to discuss these things, and we have to be open about them. How does one change without realizing the problem in the first place? I'm sober, and the very first part of forming an identity of sobriety is understanding you have a problem. That’s a really important aspect. My role as a poet is to indict myself in my poems. If I indict myself and show how my own experiences have fault, maybe my reader can see themselves in me.

NEA: What's your superpower as an artist?

MARTINEZ: Oh man, perseverance? I keep writing, I keep writing. You have to write a lot of bad poems before you can write anything halfway decent…. Through perseverance, through going to the page, through looking at myself and bringing some candle—which for me is books, friendship, love, relationships—to the darker recesses of myself, I can hopefully find some better version of myself. I mean that's what I'm trying to do—write myself into being the person that I want to be. And that takes perseverance, man. 

So many times, I've wanted to give up. When I was writing Hustle, I was at the University of Houston and I was teaching a heavy load. I was teaching six classes, and I was taking three classes, and I was editing Gulf Coast, a fine literary journal. I was coming home at 11:00 and I’d get to work on Hustle because I knew that I had to write. I also knew I had to write a book and nobody was going to write it for me. I used to think that I could just write my poems and a publisher would break into my apartment and read my poems and say, "Oh my goodness, DTM, these are amazing! Wow, we're going to put you on tour. You know, you're amazing. You’ll open for Tupac. Taylor Swift wants you to open for her at the Garden." (laughs) Life perseveres and persists and you have to do that as well.

NEA: Now that we know what your superpower is, what do wish you were better at as an artist?

MARTINEZ: I think sometimes I need to learn patience. Patience in my work, giving it time to develop into what it can be, what it wants to be and not imposing meaning or my desires on it. Desire is the root of all evil. Desire is the root of unhappiness. How does one balance that? Patience. Everything starts inside. And then it works itself out, in the way that you work in the world, in the way that you see the world, in the way that you interact with other folks. If I can have more patience, for myself and for others, particularly others, that's a really huge thing. That would make me feel better about me wielding my superpower, persistence.

NEA: You were just selected for an NEA Literature Fellowship. What does that mean to you?

MARTINEZ: I look back and when I began to write, I would look at people's bios. I didn't have anything in my bio: grew up in San Diego, California, likes to read, can dribble between his legs, has a mean crossover. Those were the things that I put on my bio. One of the things that always stuck out to me, and I always noticed was when someone had an NEA [fellowship]. That for me felt like a laurel that was beyond something I could hope for, being an urban, Latino writer, working class. I didn't believe that was something that I could do.

To be entrusted with the fellowship is something that I still don't know how to wrap my head around. And it's still something that I'm in shock and honored by. It's something that I really couldn't fathom. To join the group that has come before me, the amazing other writers and poets and such, it's really an honor. And I'm really humbled.

NEA: On a practical level how is it going to affect your art practice?

MARTINEZ: It will give me more breathing room, financially. I'll be able to teach a little less. But I think, on a psychological level, is [where it’s] going to help the most. I think for so many of us as poets, putting your work out into the world, you're seeking validation. For me, it was a nice moment to get that phone call, "Hey, you will be an NEA recipient." [It’s a] confidence boost to know that I'm on the right track and that my work is resonating.

NEA: My final question is a fill-in-the-blank: The arts matter because ____.

MARTINEZ: The arts matter because without them we can't fully engage with our potential. I think that with the rise of STEM in academia, with the rise of funding being funneled to STEM and the sciences, and practical degrees and practical ideas, I think that poetry and the arts can sometimes be put in a corner. And really the arts teach us how to be people. I don't want to live in the world that is delineated by one side of the brain. The arts bring balance. This is why scales are such a symbol in every part of our society—we need balance. The arts are an important aspect of that. Without them, we live in an imbalanced society, and we live in a place that is barren.