On the right side of his neck, just below his ear, poet and professor Ruben Quesada has a tattoo of the Chinese character 晨, set within a thick black circle, which he tells me means, “early light.” Quesada was born on an early morning in a late summer day, in August in the 1970s. “I feel that idea of light embodies who I am, and my personality,” he said. Getting that tattoo “seemed like the right thing to do.”
Quesada (MFA, PhD) grew up in Bell, an oft-overlooked city tangled within Los Angeles’ grid-like boulevards, five miles southeast from downtown, close to where the 5 and 710 Freeways converge. His mother immigrated from Costa Rica just before he was born. With the help of relatives she left Quesada’s father and an abusive relationship to move to Southern California, where she worked to raise Quesada and his two sisters. Next door was a Chinese family that had come from Nicaragua. They had six children, five of them daughters. The son was just a month older than Quesada.
“We became best friends,” said Quesada. “From kindergarten to high school we were practically inseparable. I was at their house daily. I learned so many things I would have never learned within my own family. I learned about pop culture, about computers, about nature—I would go camping with them, to Sequoia National Park, Yosemite, Joshua Tree. Because my mother had to work, she couldn’t take any time off to take us on vacations. I learned about their culture, their daily way of life. This family took me in.”
When Quesada completed his MFA, he sought a reminder of the past. In many ways, he said, earning graduate degrees in the arts severs you from this personal history: you either have to let go of it, or find a way to integrate it into your work. “I knew there was a lot that I had to let go,” he said. “But growing up with that family was something I wanted to hang on to, and to be physically a part of me.”
Quesada’s debut poetry collection, Next Extinct Mammal, was published by Greenhouse Review Press in 2011. He is the translator of Spanish poet Luis Cernuda’s work, Exiled from the Throne of Night. When he is not teaching, he serves as Contributing Editor to the Chicago Review of Books, Senior Editor at the UK-based Queen Mob’s Tea House, and the moderator of the AWP Conference’s annual Latino Caucus, which he founded. He earned his MFA at the University of California Riverside, then a PhD at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Texas, a town he recently immortalized in verse.
On the cusp of debuting his second collection of poetry, Quesada sat down with me at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, where he’s teaching a course on poetry and translation. We spoke in Café Anna, on the ground floor of College Hall, named after the ghost that still haunts the building.
Do you still talk to your friend?
Not regularly. After high school, he did what many people you grow up with do—people move, people get married…we lost touch just after graduate school. Almost 30 years after we met.
So he doesn’t know about the tattoo.
But he’d probably be pretty excited.
I think his whole family would be! I think of them often.
Were you able to find a unique identity as a Central American in California, within the Hispanic and largely Mexican community?
That’s a good question. In the Los Angeles area there are predominantly Mexican people, and in the city of Bell, there were a few other Central Americans. I remember knowing a handful of El Salvadorian people, maybe one or two from Nicaragua. Early on, I knew that Latino culture was quite diverse, that there were others who spoke Spanish like me, but maybe not held the same ideas about food, or ritual, or tradition. The unifying factor was language. We understood that our way of life was different. But we all could speak to each other in Spanish.
How did you come to poetry growing up?
My mother encouraged me to read early on, read widely and broadly. She gave me a book of poems by Pablo Neruda that she had brought with her from Costa Rica. That was my first exposure to poems. But I didn’t really think I could make a life with it.
It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I started writing letters, which was cathartic. I didn’t understand that writing letters could be a form of poetic expression until high school. My school offered college guidance, but the resources were minimal: I didn’t know that I could go to college and study poetry. I was very good at math and science, and I was going to major in physics, but at the very last minute I discovered that if I majored in English, I could still have access to poetry.
Ultimately, I ended up going to a community college and taking classes in poetry writing before transferring to Riverside, because it had a department of creative writing that was separate from English. It was then that I knew that I could major and focus in poetry, and I learned that I could make a living teaching poetry.
When you graduated, you said: “I knew that I wanted to lead a life in the arts.” Did you ever have any doubts?
I had doubts because I heard that it was difficult to get a full-time job teaching poetry with just an MFA. Even now, with a PhD, it’s still quite difficult. I wanted to do it full-time. So it was a really interesting psychological change—but also, the tattoo was a bodily change, right? Having changed my appearance in this way immediately limited the kind of work that I’d get. In many ways, it forced my hand.
I doubted whether I could make a living mostly because I didn’t have any models. I didn’t know anyone who did it except for the professors that I had. And none of them looked like me. None of them had the same background that I had. It became critically important to me that I ensure that the visibility and presence of people of color, and queer people were in the literary community in the arts. And so that is one of my passions: not only to create space, but to feature their work.
Translation must have been inevitable from the study of poetry.
I believe that any time we speak, it’s a form of translation. Any time we’re trying to convey the ideas that we have in our own head, and we put those ideas into language, it’s a form of translation. But what really draws me to poetry is that initial interaction I had with it when my mother gave me that Neruda book as a child. While I grew up speaking Spanish and learning to read Spanish, it always felt like something that I wanted to share with others in my life who didn’t speak Spanish. I knew that the best way to do that is to interpret those words into a language that was familiar to those I knew.
If you could convey one thing to our translation class you’re teaching this semester, what would it be?
Over time, the concept of translation has changed for me. In recent years, I started putting words to images, to sound. There’s an interesting take on a biblical passage from Genesis that is on my Soundcloud page. I translated Genesis into the sound of gunfire and also into the sound of a harp. Like language, it’s a really interesting performative aspect to translation. I continue to challenge my own notions of translation. Now that I have a chance to teach it, I have a really interesting, challenging thing to do. But my hope is to show others how translation can live in these multiple forms.
I think there’s certainly an academic notion that translation is a lexical exercise where you’re translating something word for word, or sentence to sentence, but what I believe is important is being able to convey an idea or an emotion that might bridge or transgress language or culture.
An alum from this program recently founded their own journal, and you’ve had your hand in two: Codex Journal and Stories & Queer. It seems to be something that a lot of us might pursue.
I started Codex in 2011, during my final years at Texas Tech University. I wanted to find a way to integrate tech and also create a space for people who weren’t visible, including an annual queer people of color issue that ran once a year.
Stories & Queer is a traveling reading series that my partner and I started in 2013. Its aim is to travel to rural areas where there’s a lack of visibility of LGBT people—we find a space and we create a literary event, so people there have an opportunity to tell their stories. In Montpelier I’m currently organizing a literary event with a Vermont group called Outright.
What are some things that surprised you when you launched a journal?
Codex has been on hiatus for some time. But toward the end, I found guest editors. It takes a lot of time to curate an issue—this was a quarterly journal, and even four times a year, it was a lot of time to try to either solicit or go through submissions and create a cohesive idea for each issue. Even though I found guest editors, trying to find a guest editor who was passionate about a particular idea also took a lot of time. It’s a digital journal, and that also takes some financial backing. To ensure that all the work I publish lives online, I have to continue hosting that URL. There are so many small journals I see disappear in a year, mostly because people don’t have the time and money to ensure that it’s gonna be around. The long game is important. If you’re going to feature people’s work, you owe them the space to ensure them that their work will survive.
Maybe it didn’t necessarily surprise me, but I don’t know if surprise is the right word—it renewed my respect for literary institutions that have been around for decades.
What drew you toward Luis Cernuda and his work?
I was drawn to Spanish language poetry because of my background. The most recognizable poets of Spain might be those of the late 19th or early 20th century, a group known as the Generation of ‘27. That includes another recognizable name: Federico García Lorca. Cernuda was a contemporary. They were the only two gay poets of that group—Lorca was not out, but Cernuda was. In many ways, his openness with his sexuality may have hindered his success. I started studying Cernuda during my MFA program, and began to translate my work then. There are three American poets who have translated most of his work—Reginald Gibbons, Derek Harris, and Stephen Kessler who’s won many awards for his translation of Cernuda.
But there is one collection by him that has not been completely translated. When I was in graduate school I reached out to his family and acquired rights to translate his work. It’s his collection called Las Nubes, or “The Clouds”, that I’m currently working on. As I finish my second collection of poems, I’m slowly returning to Cernuda.
How does Las Nubes fit into his overall body of work?
This collection was written in exile. Cernuda self-exiled in 1937 and he never returned. So these poems were written during his time outside of Spain. He taught at Columbia University and at UCLA, and it’s during his time at UCLA that he died. So it’s interesting to translate these poems that were written in his native language, while he was outside of his home country.
The poems align themselves with most of his other work, which is spare, influenced by surrealism, and focused on love and desire. Throughout his body of work, he’s wrestled with his homosexual desires and how that fit into his world. He does that through the implication of the body and nature.
Tell me about your second collection of poetry.
The second collection is a departure from my first. My first collection is focused on my time in LA, my childhood, and my family. I think place and family play a prominent role in that collection. If someone was to examine many first collections of poetry by Latino writers, they might find that those are pretty common themes.
The current manuscript is focused on desire and religion. The book is organized by different Catholic sacraments—there’s a section on communion, there’s a section on confession, and the poems are organized in parts. One section might have a title, but poems in that section are numbered. What’s different about the way they look is that they’re laid out in blocks of text with no punctuation, so they appear to look as tablets.
The idea for that really came to me when I was reading at the Art Institute of Chicago. There was a Mayan stone in the shape of a square. The stone itself tells a story in hieroglyphs. Those glyphs reminded me of contemporary use of images to convey ideas, emojis, and I began to think of my use of imagery in a similar fashion.
You said you live in Chicago. How do you like the city?
I love Chicago. I’ve been in the Midwest five years, but I’ve lived in Chicago just over two. There’s many things I like about it. Its public transit, the skyline, the lake, the weather. The way the city is laid out reminds me of Los Angeles in many ways: the city spreads out into little neighborhoods just the way Los Angeles does. So in many ways it feels like home.
I’ve considered living in cities like New York City and I still think about it sometimes, but the pace of New York makes me a bit nauseous. There’s just too much happening at once. Los Angeles is in retrospect too spread out. Chicago is busy enough and there’s enough culture that it feels like a middle ground.
How do you write? Do you write at home, in a coffee shop, etc?
I write anywhere I can, at any moment. Revision is a different story. When I revise, most of the time I’ll revise at a desk, at a table.
I love revising, I think I do it too much sometimes. You know, I’m reminded of Walt Whitman’s incessant revisions of Leaves of Grass and I have to remind myself to step away and not labor so much over an idea or a moment in a poem. I try to step away from something as often as I can.