David Tomas Martinez
Music Credit: “NY” composed and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the
Free Music Archive.
Jo Reed: Now, Hustle has been chosen for The Big Read.
David Martinez: Crazy, right? You know what I mean? Like, man. And then you look at the list, and I'm like, "Pffft." Man, it's wild. WILD. If you would have told me, you would have sat back and been like, I don't know man, when I was hanging out in Meadowbrook Apartments with some of my homies in Skyline, and if they would have been like, "You know, in 25 years, you're going to be a poet and your book, the first book you write, is going to be an NEA Big Read, with the possibility to have a large readership, and you'll be nationally recognized by people," I would have said, "No way." You know what I mean? I would have never, never believed that that was possible. Like I said, partly I've had to believe in myself, sometimes beyond reality, beyond the facts, but I still would never have fathomed that. If I would have been able to eke out any little thing and just been able to write a book, I would have been happy, but to be an NEA Big Read, it's phenomenal, and it's something that surpasses my wildest dreams. And it's crazy. It's still crazy to me, like I still smile. Like even you saying that, I was like, "I know, right? It's a Big Read."
Jo Reed: That is the exuberant voice of poet and recently named Big Read author David Tomas Martinez and this is Art Works, the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. David Tomas Martinez is a poet of great linguistic flair: he’s fluent in Spanish and English, certainly—but he is also equally adept at moving from modernist imagery to the language of Southern California streets—a latinex slang mixed with hip-hop rhythms. David was born in San Diego to a working class family and he ran with a gang, but he found his way to college and became a poet. He’s now won multiple fellowships and awards including the 2015 Verlaine Poetry Prize and a 2017 NEA Creative Writing fellowship. And as you heard, his first collection of poetry, Hustle, has just been named to the NEA’s National Reading Initiative: The Big Read. David Tomas Martinez is a self-identified code-switcher and his poems reflect this kaleidoscopic existence. He writes with great heart about life on the tough side of town…. interrogating masculinity, power and violence. His work is psychology rich, knowing and furious, all stitched together with powerful and playful language that reflects not just verbal dexterity but a deep passionate love of words.
David Martinez: I remember that being a small child and either in school or amongst my family people responding to my ability to use language. And as a small child, I would write. I mean, everybody does; right? That's a sort of, like, obligatory rite of passage to write poems to your mother. You know, nobody writes poems to dads; right? You know what I mean? I don't know, maybe they do.
Jo Reed: No, it's true. Yeah. Well, you did in Hustle, but that's beside the point. But when you're a kid...
David Martinez: Yeah, and those aren't the sort of, like, "Yeah," and, you know, my mom was, like, "Why are there no poems about me?" And I was, like, "I don't think you want me to write those poems about you, Mom." You know what I mean? So yeah, it's always, like, "Dad, you made me angry." So I think those were the first, and then later on, I became really entranced with slang and that for me was the first way that I began to think of the flexibility of language and really understand code switching. Because it was growing up in an urban environment, the working class, a very working class environment, and neither of my parents are college. It wasn't like my parents were the black sheep, they were just, pretty much status quo for their family. So there was English. There was Spanish. There was slang. Because we grew up in an urban and it was very, sort of, mixed racially neighborhoods we always lived in. And so it was a sort of amalgamation of cultures and languages and code switching and hip-hop was the first music that was really mine. So listening to slang, sort of, incorporating slang into my own language, at a very young age, we're talking about elementary school here. You know what I mean? That’s when I really fell in love with language, and then, so when I went to college, at 21, I was a non-traditional student, and I was fully entrenched in the verbal dexterity of slang, and as I took poetry classes, I just, sort of, took a poetry workshop, as a “I don't know, man. I didn't have anything better to do on Tuesdays and Thursdays.” and was, like, you know, "This is an easy A. Let me go ahead and knock this out. You know what I mean? So I can play. I don't have to worry about anything." And I don't know, man, I just dug it. To me, there is a huge correlation between the use of slang and poetic diction, and it’s coming up with a sort of metaphor or simile that really hits, as very similar to me to saying something cool.
Jo Reed: But when you were a kid, were your parents storytellers?
David Martinez: No. No. My dad was a landscaper and my mom worked in a doctor's office, and she was a secretary, and so they were just focused on working, man, and just doing their deal. Like, just trying to get by day-to-day. Like, their idea of focus on the better life was not via stories or narratives. It was, you know, like, "Go to college, son, and then, you know, I mean, you'll have an easier life. You won't have to work as hard as we are." However, my grandmother, my dad's mom, she would read to me, man, like as a little kid. You know, I was the first grandson, you know, in a Mexican family, so that's that's a, sort of, special place, and my dad's the oldest. So...
Jo Reed: Oh, yeah.
David Martinez: So, you know, you know what I mean. It's like any Chicano family that sort of thing...
Jo Reed: Oh, I know exactly what you mean. My ex-husband is Turkish and was the eldest son of an eldest son of an eldest son.
David Martinez: Yeah, they're bad. Yes.
Jo Reed: Oh, Lord
David Martinez: So let me say I denounced that form of patriarchy. I mean, but there is a special place in there. You know, like, if my grandmother was cooking fish and I didn't want fish, I'd be, like, "You know, Abuelita, like, I want some papas. I don't want fish. Fish is gross." And she'd be, like, "Okay, mi hijo, just wait until after, and I'll cook you papas," and you know what I mean? I think I went through m my whole childhood eating potatoes. My grandmother, you know, she spent time and she would read to me and I'd just sit in her lap, man, and she would just read to me for, you know, extended stretches.
Jo Reed: So then, how did you end up running with a gang? You come from a solid working class family and your parents wanted you to go to college, too. Can you remember what flipped?
David Martinez: You know, it was just around. Some of my friends, you knew they didn't have much of a chance. Like, they didn't have a father present, and I had a father present, and you know, many of my friends didn't. They just didn't have fathers present. They were either in jail or had other reasons. You know, and then, their mom was in a gang and their mom sold drugs, and you just knew it was a hereditary thing, and they didn't really see any other way. And my parents were very much opposed to me being in a gang. And, I mean, my dad, one time, you know, he came down on the block and I was hanging out, and he came in his truck and, "errr," skidded out and was, like, "Get your ass in the car. I told you about hanging out with these thugs." You know, I looked around and I was, like, "You better go with your dad, homie." So, while my family was very much opposed to it, I just, like, “I don't know, man, I’m going to do my thing.” I was so hard-headed and obstinate. That was my idea of strength and I looked around people weren't educated, people didn't have any power in my family, I felt. That's how I felt. You know, and my dad took his masculinity as a sense of power, like very, very seriously. But he also, in a sort of hierarchal structure, he didn't have a lot of power. And so it wasn't something that I aspired to be. I didn't aspire to be my parents. I wanted to be something else. like, some people grow up and they're, like, "My parents are super cool." I was not, like, "My parents are super cool." I was, like, "Hmm. What's near me that's cool?" And gangs were. I was attracted to the power. I was attracted to the money, they were like the celebrities in our neighborhood.
Jo Reed: Why did you stop running with a gang?
David Martinez: You know, I don't know, man. Just because I was a father at 17 and then I was a father again, and then I went into the Navy and then I came back, and then I went into Job Corps. I had other stuff to do, man, and I just...
Jo Reed: Okay.
David Martinez: ...stopped hanging out. You organically grow out of it. It's like, you know, the same way you stop going to the club. You just, all of a sudden, be like, "Eh. I don't really want it."
Jo Reed: Yeah.
David Martinez: "I don't feel like going to the bar." I mean, that's how I got sober. I was, like, "Man, I want to stop creating the same patterns and the same mistakes," you know, so...
Jo Reed: So you went to college and you took a poetry workshop because it was a gap in your schedule and it looked easy. Did something happen to you when you were in that workshop that clicked?
David Martinez: I think that I've been fortunate in that my whole academic career people have been pointing toward a direction and saying that I have a natural ability. I enjoyed reading and talking about it, ever since I was a little kid. I read a lot, as a kid and even when I was in a gang, I would try to read Nietzsche and I would try to read all these other things. For me, that was a way of obtaining strength, and I felt very like I was attracted to that. So when I was in college and with poetry, it was the same thing, man. I just took it and it's not like the teachers, you know, or the instructor, gave me a lot of praise during the class. But when it was done, she was, like, "Hey, you know, you have some talent at this. You should take a poetry workshop." And I was, like, "Eh, I guess, man." I was, like, “Whatever." You know, "Thanks." I was very nonchalant about it, and then, again, there was a, sort of, gap in my schedule, and I was, like, "Eh, that was an easy A. You know, maybe, I'll take it again." And while I was at San Diego State, I took Glover Davis and the very first poem I turned in, it was a poem that you could read down the page or up the page, and it was called, "This Way Up.” So it was a very…
Jo Reed: A very post-modern poem.
David Martinez: Yes. Yes. And I turned in this poem and, you know, people were fumbling around-- because, obviously, it wasn't very clear and it wasn't very good. It was very abstract. But, I thought it was good, and I was, like, "Oh, man, this is going to really revolutionize this workshop's aesthetic." Yeah. And somebody had said, "Hey, I think you can read it up and down, down the page and up the page, and oh, man, this--" you know, and people started saying-- getting a little excited about it, and Glover just sat there and, you know, he played offensive line at Fresno State, and so he was a, sort of, big dude and he said, "Well, after this poem does that one trick, which is brilliant, what does it do?" And I was pissed. I was, like, "You do not see the brilliance of this poem. Short sided.’ You know I mean? You know, the sort of arrogance of the youth; right? Like, there's nobody as dumb as somebody who's a little bit smart. I was quiet about it, but I was stewing inside. And, I kept going at it and kept going at it, and he kept giving me, sort of, similar feedback, and I just and I thought, "Let me listen to this dude, what he's been saying and, things just clicked and I saw what he meant and I understood his critiques, and it really opened up something for me. And it really recontextualized the very first poem that I turned in, the one that I thought was amazing, and I thought, "Oh, man, I never want to turn in a poem again, or just write a poem that just does one thing and me be satisfied with that." I just wanted it to be good. And that really, sort of, helped form my aesthetic, that little moment right there, man.
Jo Reed: It's a big moment, though, because it's learning that being clever...
David Martinez: Yes.
Jo Reed: ...really isn't good enough.
David Martinez: No.
Jo Reed: Clever is great, and boy...
David Martinez: Yeah.
Jo Reed: ...you can get a lot of points for clever. But...
David Martinez: Exactly.
Jo Reed: ...it's like beer. It goes right through you.
David Martinez: Right. Right. You know, and well, there has to be some sort of substance; right? Like... After the flashing lights and the bells and whistles, you know, what does it do? And so that really began to form my aesthetic, and that was a huge, huge learning moment for me, and at the end of the class, the same thing happened. I'm leaving out. I didn't think the dude liked me and he was, like, "Hey, David, I'm teaching a forms class next semester. I want you to take it. You show some real potential and, I was, like, "Yeah, whatever.” Again, schedule comes up. I have a hole in my schedule, and also, as a former mentor used to tell me, sometimes there's an upstairs working that you're not aware of. And, I see now that I think there was an upstairs, a whole other floor working that I had no idea about, and, you know, I took that forms class and next thing I know, I took his class every semester, every semester, every semester, and he was, like, "Hey, man--" when I was graduating and I was getting my Bachelor's, he was, like, "You should get a master's degree." And I was, like, "A master's degree?" I'm, like, "What am I going to do with a master's degree, man?" "You can do what I do. I do what I love. I teach poetry." He was like, "Is that something that would interest you?" I was, like, "Huh." I thought about it and got everything in. I know he helped push me through and get me in. You know, I’ve been very fortunate with the people that I've been able to study with and some amazing minds, and you know, they would continue to challenge me. I am so happy that they could see through my own immaturity and insecurities, I'm so appreciative of all of the knowledge that they shared with me, and all of the time.
Jo Reed: Well, let’s hear a poem from Hustle.
David Martinez: Okay.
Jo Reed: What about the first poem, "On Palomar Mountain".
David Martinez: "On Palomar Mountain."
"The dark peoples with things:
for keys, coins, pencils,
and pens our pockets grieve.
No street lights or signs,
no liquor stores or bars,
only a lighter for a flashlight,
and the same-faced trees,
and crooked bushes
staring back at me.
There is no path in the woods for a boy from the city.
I would have set fire to get off this wilderness
but Palomar is no El Camino in an empty lot,
the plastic dripping from the dash
and the paint bubbling like a toad's throat.
If mountains were old pieces of furniture,
I would have lit the fabric and danced.
If mountains were abandoned crack houses,
I would have opened their meanings with flame,
if that would have let the wind and trees lead my eyes
or shown me the moon's tip-toe on the moss—
as you effect my hand,
as we walk into the side of a Sunday night."
Jo Reed: There is something about that phrase of "walk into the side of a Sunday night" that I find so evocative. What's your process for creating an image?
David Martinez: Well, I think that-- like I was fortunate early on-- like I said, Glover Davis, my first mentor, he was a neo-formalist, and he really was taken by the imagists, very sparse, terse poems-- and like obviously already-- I sort of meander through a conversation. So that wasn't really psychologically my sort of cognitive process. Like that didn't fit very well. But, the ideas of high modernism which he pushed, I’ve taken my idea of the image from high modernism. That’s one of the biggest things I’ve taken from them. And then, I thin also what I tyr to do is look at the things that are around my physically, or in my reading and I try to get to the center of them. What is it actually trying to say? I think as I’ve become a better reader, I’ve become a better writer. I mean, that’s a cliché right? But I think it’s really true. I remember writing this poem. Like Sandra Alcosser, who was my second mentor, she lives in San Diego and she also lives in Wyoming, and she's very nature-oriented in her political stances, and she would talk a lot about that sort of stuff, and I really loved the way that she thought of poems, and so much of the way she views poetry has stuck with me, and I remember she told me, she's like, "David, be in all camps but none," to be flexible and not to be so rigid in your aesthetic values, to pick and choose what you like from movements in poetry, and she would talk about nature and talk about Wyoming and such. This was a writing prompting class, and this poem came out of that. She had been going on about some nature sort of poem and I think it was a prompt about that, and I was like, "Man, I have no idea about nature." I was like, "I'm scared of raccoons, man." Possums are like, you know what I mean? I'm like, "Unh-unh," like, I don't know, I don't very feel comfortable in nature, because we didn't go in nature. We didn't go places, man. You know what I mean? We didn't go into the woods or anything like that. We stayed in the city.
Jo Reed: Well, I grew up in a city too, when you grow up in a city, especially if you're a girl, you're told, "You do not go in places that are dark where there is no one."
David Martinez: Right.
Jo Reed: And then suddenly you're in a cabin in the middle of the woods and it's dark and there's no one. I mean, really. It doesn't feel very safe.
David Martinez: No. No, no, no. Yeah, I can completely empathize with that experience.
Jo Reed: Now, for a long time you said you resisted exploring your own life as a subject for your poetry.
David Martinez: Yeah.
Jo Reed: So what had you been writing, and what changed your mind?
David Martinez: I was just sort of going about-- I was writing formal poems; I was writing in blank verse; I was writing sonnets. I was very insulated in my experience of poetry. I had no idea of the larger poetry world. I didn't know there really was one. I just thought there was the canon, and everyone reads the canon, and then you write poems, and then 40 years later hopefully they talk about you. That's what I really thought of as the poetry world. So I was writing these poems and Sandra Alcosser sat me down and was like, “I'm very respectful of language poetry and experimental work and what it's doing," but she was like, "Maybe you're excluding a huge part of your experience by writing these sort of poems," and I was like, "What?" Again, it's another one of those big moments, and Sandra told me essentially, like, "You should be writing about your background, and you have a wealth of knowledge and experimental work may not be your strength," and I straight up told her, I was like, "Sandra, but I'm Chicano. If I write about Chicano things, I'm going to immediately be ghettoized." Like, "I know what the deal is. I know what the score is, and that's not what I want to be." Again, I'm very fortunate that the people that I've worked with are very patient, there's real truth to what I thought about, she also was like, "You just have to be patient and you have to believe in the work” and I was just like, "You know what? I just had to trust who I am, and that I can do it well." And I think also when Hustle was published in 2014, the poetry landscape, was much different too, and there wasn't a lot of books about an urban experience. That's not your prototypical poetry subject.
Jo Reed: Yes. It is not, and neither is "The Only Mexican", which is another poem I'd like you to read.
David Martinez: Okay, this is funny, because I wrote this poem when I was in Houston, and I would go back and I'd visit my family, and I'd stay with my dad, and they had all done a very Chicano thing and they moved in together to take care of my grandfather, who was confined to a wheelchair and had dementia. The poem comes from that.
"The Only Mexican."
The only Mexican that ever was Mexican, fought in the revolution
and drank nightly, and like all machos, crawled into work crudo,
letting his breath twirl, then clap and sing before sandpaper
juiced the metal. The only Mexican to never sit in a Catholic pew
was born on Halloween, and ate his lunch wrapped in foil against
the fence with the other Mexicans. They fixed old Fords where my
grandfather worked for years, him and the welder Juan wagered
each year on who would return first to the Yucatan. Neither did.
When my aunts leave, my dad paces the living room and then rests,
like a jaguar who once drank rain off the leaves of Cecropia trees,
but now caged, bends his paw on a speaker to watch crowds pass.
He asks me to watch grandpa, which means, for the day; in town
for two weeks, I have tried my best to avoid this. Many times he will swear,
and many times grandpa will ask to get in and out of bed, want a sweater,
he will ask the time, he will use the toilet, frequently ask for beer,
about dinner, when the Padres play, por que no novelas, about bed.
He will ask about his house, grandma, to sit outside, he will question
while answering, he will smirk, he will invent languages while tucked in bed.
He will bump the table, tap the couch, he will lose his slipper, wedging it in
the wheel of his chair, like a small child trapped in a well, everyone will care.
He will cry without tears—a broken carburetor of sobs. When I speak
Spanish, he shakes his head, and reminds me, he is the only Mexican.
Jo Reed: That I think is an extraordinary poem for so many reasons; the imagery, certainly. "A broken carburetor of sobs" is really fabulous. But the detail and the specificity, and yet it speaks both to your background but there's such a universality to it at the same time.
David Martinez: Thank you. It's funny, I always wanted to write a poem about my grandfather. He would die shortly after me writing this. He was an interesting figure to me and he didn't speak English, and my grandmother, she had ten kids and they didn't speak Spanish growing up in the home because she wanted her children to assimilate into American culture. Now, my grandfather wasn't a citizen and I think he became a citizen much later on in his life, but my grandmother was from L.A. and she was Mexican and Yaqui. So she had a very different experience, Mexican experience, than my grandfather, who had the diaspora. So, there was this very strange push-pull amongst about Mexican-ness and Latinidad and so my grandfather was very big about, "I'm the only Mexican." Like somebody in the family would be like, "Oh yeah, we're Mexican," and my grandfather would be like, "You're not Mexican. I'm Mexican." That's what he would say, you know what I mean? He'd be like, "You guys are Americans." And then he grumble, and "brah, brah, brah, bah"-- like that-- and he used to like to drink, so it'd be sort of exasperated, and he could be a caring dude and very loving dude, but at the same time I seen him chase every one of my aunts and uncles with a machete. Inevitably, we'd have a party, and somebody would get-- they'd all get drunk and then there'd be some sort of argument. So sometime in my life I've seen all of them-- and I'm talking about the boys and the girls-- it didn't matter-- and then everyone would calm down and be cool and stuff like that and it'd be fine. But he was a very interesting figure to me, so I wanted to write this, and I also wanted to sort of honor my dad, but also the distance of language here too. I was really sort of fixated on language and that sort of thing at the same time too. So I'm glad that you found it universal, and I also think we all, regardless of ethnicity, feel distancing from history, whether we have strong roots to our past or not, and that's another thing that's a very American experience. In some ways, that doesn't matter racially-- we all sort of feel that diaspora. And even if you're of indigenous stock, there's that sort of diaspora. There is no escaping that. Diaspora may be the one inclusive American experience that we all feel to a greater or lesser degree.
Jo Reed: I think that's right, and I hadn't thought about that before, but as soon as you said it, it seemed very, very true to me.
David Martinez: Well, I just thought of it right now, so.
Jo Reed: That's how it happens sometimes.
David Martinez: Yeah, well.
Jo Reed: Hustle is divided into four parts, and Part III opens, it's "Motion and Rest", and it's a prose poem, and I think it's the only one in the book, and it begins in the first sentence you say, "Stasis being the natural precursor of stagnation and death..." I'd like you to talk about that, and I'd like you to talk about that and I’d like you to talk about your decision to put it in prose form.
David Martinez: Well, that comes from Simone Weil, I love the way she thinks, and I wrote this poem when I was in Houston and it was the first time I had really lived outside of San Diego, and I'd been in the Navy for ten months, and I had been away-- but Houston was the first time that I had been on my own. When I started at the University of Houston for a PhD, I didn't have any funding from the University of Houston. I had a ton of bills and I had already maxed out my student loans, so I couldn't get student loans. So, and I was in a little one-bedroom apartment. I felt very alone, and it was the first time that I had been away from my family. I didn't know, like I'm in my early 30s, I didn't understand how much I needed my family. And when I was in this precarious position, like I didn't know how I was going to make rent every month, and I was teaching at three classes at a community college, and then later on I was teaching three at the University of Houston, doing anything else, taking three classes, and writing Hustle, like, furiously. I felt like, talk about motion and rest. Like I was completely in turmoil, and I was completely in this tumultuous place emotionally, and also psychologically, and it was very difficult for me, but I was also fixed, because I had to be patient, because I had to continue to work hard, I had to continue to hone my craft. So when I read Simone Weil and she's talking about motion and rest, it really, really stuck with me. And like, "Man, I want to do something different," and I wrote this sort of prose-essay-poem, and I thought, “Let me see if I can make this work in my book." And so that was part of the reason also some of the poems, because it was written over such a large period, and I also I wanted it to have breaks because I also didn't feel like it was a continuous unit, and so in that way it's motion and rest as well, the whole collection of the book together.
Jo Reed: I hadn't thought about that.
David Martinez: Mm-hmm, and that's why it starts the third, and that's sort of the second half of the book, and it becomes something different. "Motion and Rest" signals a different approach to poetry.
Jo Reed: You know what it reminded me of? It reminded me of James Baldwin, "The Creative Process"-- and I love James Baldwin, so this is a true compliment from the bottom of my heart, and he wrote, "A society must assume that it's stable, but the artist must know and he must let us know that there is nothing stable under Heaven."
David Martinez: Yeah.
Jo Reed: And there was a sense when I read "Motion and Rest,” that quote just came to mind, and I felt like that's part of what you're doing with this book too.
David Martinez: Well, first of all, is there anyone better to quote than Baldwin?
Jo Reed: Well, maybe Shakespeare, but I don't know.
David Martinez: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, no, Shakespeare-- yeah, that is very true. But, I feel like Baldwin particularly speaks to our moment. Shakespeare particularly speaks to all moments.
Jo Reed: Nice.
David Martinez: Anyways, well yeah, that's huge. I really appreciate you saying that.
Jo Reed: No, not at all. You really look at masculinity and vulnerability in your work in Hustle, and that is rare, anywhere, I think particularly in poetry. Can you tell me just how you got your hands around it, and what you were trying to unpack there?
David Martinez: I was raised in a very hyper-machismo culture, and I was attracted to the aspects of strength that the patriarchy and that machismo culture really pushed in a sort of physical manner. What I didn't recognize is the sort of psychological and verbal poses that I would adopt via the patriarchy and hyper-masculinity. When I began to be aware of them and I began to see myself and all of the mistakes I had made, sometimes being aware of them, sometimes not, I began to question who I was. And that's a hard place to be, right? When you think, "Oh, this is who I am and this is what makes me me," and then I began to question that, and that's hard, like I was like, "How can I express this in my poetry?” So I also feel like this is how my gang experience helped sort of form the way I see the world, in that one day early in the afternoon I could see somebody beat someone up, or that I could beat someone up. Later on in the day, I could get beat up. And I saw people who would get life in prison for multiple murders, but I saw them hold their children, and I saw them be completely kind with me. Like, he's a murderer, you know what I mean, but he was also a person. And later on in the book, there's "Forgetting Willie James Jones.”
Jo Reed: I literally have it open on my lap because I was going to ask you to read that next. So it's a beautiful segue. Let's hear it, if you don't mind.
David Martinez: And this is also another long sequence.
"Forgetting Willie James Jones."
“It’s not water to wine to swallow harm,
though many of us have,
and changing the name
of Ozark Street to Willie Jones Street,
won’t expose how the sun roars across rows of faces
at the funeral for a seventeen-year-old-boy,
won’t stop the double slapping
of the screen door against a frame,
causing a grandmother, by habit, to yell out, Willie.
It can’t deafen the trophies in a dead teenager’s room.
That day in ‘94 I felt strong.
I walked down the street with nickel bags of weed
in the belt loops of my Dickies,
and a bandana strung from my pocket.
That’s when I thought trouble could be run from,
could be avoided by never sitting
with your back to the door
or near a window.
I swore by long days and strutted along a rusted past,
shook dice and smoked with the boys
that posted on the corners:
and men cruising in coupes, men built so big
they took up both seats,
I rode with them that summer.
That was the season death walked alongside us all,
wagging its haunches and twisting its collared neck
at a bird glittering along a branch.
Willie was shot in that heat,
with a stolen pistol,
in the front yard of a party.
It poked a hole
no bigger than a pebble
in his body.
The shooters came from my high school:
we sometimes smoked in the bungalow
bathrooms during lunch.
A few weeks before Willie got shot,
Maurice had been killed—
An awning after rain,
Maurice and Willie
sagged from the weight.
Some say it is better
to be carried by six
than judged by twelve.
Some say the summer of ‘94
in Southeast San Diego
was just another summer.
Jo Reed: That is such a powerful poem. In your old neighborhood, there really wasn't a lot of chances for do-overs, and not a lot of forgiveness.
David Martinez: No, not at all. Not at all.
Jo Reed: I think, I'm always so mindful about if you want to talk about discrepancies in society, the people who really can be forgiven and the people who really can't be.
David Martinez: I think that we're all very aware of the discrepancies of social economic discrepancies, the racial discrepancies that we impose as a society. However, the neighborhood imposes its own discrepancies, like I came up through a lot of violence within my home, outside of my home. Hustle alludes to it. My second book talks about it. I was sexually abused. I saw a lot of violent stuff. I was lucky. Like I was lucky, I was lucky by my family that I had, the upbringing that I had, even the people that were around me, and I was lucky that in college that people saw through my rough exterior and they gave me room to grow. So many people I grew up with, they didn't have that.
Jo Reed: Exactly.
David Martinez: And I know that I've been lucky. Like I don't in any way think that I'm special. I believe in my ability, I believe in my talent, I believe in all of these things, but there were so many that had, they'd run circles around me with their natural ability with language, and could out-talk me and they were truly silver-tongued, but for whatever reason, I've been very fortunate.
Jo Reed: Because we have very little time left and I could talk to you for a very long time, David, I want to just turn to the NEA for a moment, and you got a fellowship, a literature fellowship for the NEA. What did that mean for you?
David Martinez: Pffft. Man. The NEA for me was always one of those markers of success, one of those markers that said, "You're a poet." It wasn't until I decided to get an MFA that I was like, "I'm a poet," and I was collecting all of these things as reminders, as mementos that I was a poet. They were tattoos, my forearms say "Poetic License.”
Jo Reed: You mean like affirmations?
David Martinez: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I had a Poet belt buckle. I had a Poet coffee mug. I have multiple Poetry t-shirts. Those were one ways of boosting my self-esteem to believe that I could do this. And the NEA was a marker for me, and that was something that I was like, "I really want an NEA." And so when I was eligible for an NEA I applied, man, as soon as I was eligible, and I was fortunate enough to get one, and, man, to get an NEA just felt-- like I remember getting the phone call, and it felt like everything I had worked hard for was sort of validated, and made me feel that I had made the right decisions. I was fortunate enough that it happened in between my first and second book, and so I was like, "Man, this is very cool."
Jo Reed: It gave you time to write.
David Martinez: And then, that's what I was going to get to next, and the financial flexibility of getting money that I knew I had, which it gave me for the first time in my life, I wasn't worried about could I pay rent this month, which is crazy for me. You know what I mean? Like as someone in their mid-30s to be like, "Do I get to pay rent this month?" It was the first time in my whole life. And so that was the very first time that I felt like I had a little bit of breathing room, which was its own psychological boost, as long as well as financial.
Jo Reed: I think that's a good place to end it, David, even though we did not talk about cooking at all.
David Martinez: Oh! Pffft. I love to cook.
Jo Reed: I love to cook.
David Martinez: Yes. Listen, I like to cook everything, but Mexican food is my favorite. Like that's my favorite, and I feel very in tune with the ancestors when I'm making tortillas. I feel like when I write poems that I am part of a tradition. I believe this firmly. This is part of the reason why I write poetry. I believe strongly in an aesthetic, in my aesthetic, because I believe that poetry is a tradition, and that I'm writing with people through time, that aren't like me, but some that are, in various ways. But the one thing that connects us is poems, and our fidelity to writing well-written poems. Whether I'm able to accomplish that, we'll see. But I feel the same way about cooking. So when I make tortillas or when I make carnitas, or when I make enchiladas, I feel it's the same way. There's a tradition. There is a being in step with time that I am able to achieve in a very finite moment. These are transient things and being able to cook and to work on recipes that my grandmother, she didn't pass them down to me, I just watched her.
Jo Reed: Oh, right. Yeah.
David Martinez: You know what I mean? Like there was a cookbook or something like that-- nah, nah, nah, nah, you know what I mean? I just watched her, and then I would ask other people in the community.
Jo Reed: Right. I remember with my grandmother asking, "Well, how much flour?" "Enough."
David Martinez: Exactly. You know what I'm saying? I have zero recipes. Like everything is rule of thumb, man. There's a real kinship for writing poems and cooking for me, and I also feel like it's one way that I'm able to share love. I love to cook for my family, and I love to cook for my friends. It gives me real pleasure. And in that way, I'm my grandmother. You know what I mean?
Jo Reed: I think we all are, yeah. Well, David, thank you so much. I appreciate it.
David Martinez: Thank you for having me.
Jo Reed: That is poet David Tomas Martinez. His book Hustle has just been named a Big Read title. Hustle is published by Sarabande Books. You can find out more about the Big Read at arts.gov. You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to Art Works where ever you get your podcasts. So please do and leave us a rating on Apple—it helps people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.
Poet David Tomas Martinez’s book (and new Big Read title) Hustle explodes with verbal dexterity about street life. Born in San Diego to a working class Chicano family, David Tomas Martinez found power and strength by running with a gang. A father at 17, he ended up in college as a returning student through sheer luck, and there he found strength and power through language. David became a poet and the rough side of town and the people he knew (and knows) there became his subjects. His first collection, and first publication, is Hustle which became a prize-winning book…and a new Big Read title. David’s joy in linguistic playfulness isn’t confined to the page. His honesty, exuberance, and charm comes through in this podcast as we walk with him down the streets of Southern California; there’s violence and meanness—but also heart-stopping moments of grace.