A Q&A with Michael Torres
Who do we belong to? This is the question Michael Torres ponders as he explores the roles that names, hometown, language, and others’ perceptions each play on our understanding of ourselves in his debut poetry collection An Incomplete List of Names. More than a boyhood ballad or a coming-of-age story, this collection illuminates an artist’s struggle to make sense of the disparate identities others have forced upon him. Poet Raquel Salas Rivera selected it as our winner in the National Poetry Series. For Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month, he caught up with Torres to chat with him about it.
Raquel Salas Rivera: One of the things that struck me the most was your use of metaphor. You seem to be doing something akin to what I’ve long been trying to do in my own work—find metaphors in the quotidian, in your surroundings. In your opening poem, “1991,” for example, you compare “an eyelash/ resting on the fingertip” to “an empty/ teeter-totter at the park.” Each of these alone would stand its ground, but the fact that you are able to draw them together, through both movement, precarity, and intimacy, that's something else. It reminds me of Federico García Lorca's argument that Luis de Góngora was able to create island-metaphors, small solar systems around metaphors, where two things are comparable on only one point, but work at different levels. Who do you feel taught you some of what you know about metaphor, or who, I guess, influenced you?
Michael Torres: I’d have to say Larry Levis has been the biggest influence. Though, I don’t think I intentionally went to his work for metaphors. I just loved the way another, surreal world could blossom from within the real world of the poem. I’m always fascinated at the point in which an image or description sinks into a deeper space.
RSR: Who is the Pachucho? When do you decide to speak in the third person and when in the first? Talk to me about those choices.
MT: The Pachuco is based on an imagined version of my grandfather, and understanding that my speaker is the grandson, I was able to write about topics or concerns in ways that, for some reason I still can’t quite name, I couldn’t when I perceived the speaker as me. Simply put, the Pachuco gives his grandson confidence (maybe I’m speaking to lineage); the Pachuco’s grandson is a lot bolder/more daring than the speaker I’d been writing through before he came to the page.
RSR: The poem where the Pachuco's Grandson is first introduced is particularly interesting because, in a way, it is not just the generality of your multiple names, but also about institutional erasure. The speaker responds to the moment in which the teacher chooses not to call your name in roll call with “That’s how I knew/ I didn’t have to answer no more. I became absence/ in my seat, asleep.” I was also left thinking about tagging in graffiti, how the tag is more about getting your name everywhere than about being aesthetically pleasing, more about having a presence in public space. Talk to me about the importance of naming in the book.
MT: Growing up (particularly in middle school), some of my best friends and just the funnest people to hang with at lunch were who the adults—proctors, vice principals, PE coaches—thought were only troublemakers and were often, in my opinion, mistreated. I have a distinct memory of returning with a homie to the vice principal’s office at the end of the school year to retrieve his pager. That year, I’d worked as an office assistant (insert nerd emoji here), and when the vice principal saw me walk in with my homie, he said, “You’re friends with this guy?” He seemed genuinely confused. I, on the other hand, thought: Yes, of course; he’s a wonderful friend. Needless to say, very early on, I learned not to trust what authority figures thought of people they knew only from certain angles or aspects. Naturally, this led me to want to take control of my own identity as I grew into adolescence. The homies I then made in high school were all mostly graffiti artists. Our identity, the names we gave ourselves, were the most important aspects of us. It was reputation and recognition, on our terms.
RSR: Poems like “The Very Short Story of Your Knuckles” and “The Pachuco’s Grandson Smokes His First Cigarette After Contemplating Masculinity,” in fact most of the poems of the book, deal with masculinity and lineage directly. I’m struck by the verses, “What mean teach/ boys to be, girls witness as well.” Do you think poetry has given you the face to rethink patriarchal masculinity? If so, why? If not, when do you think that questioning began?
MT: Since poetry, for me, is explorative, I’ve been able to expand on masculinity, its various manifestations. It’s more complicated and complex than I gave it credit for growing up. (How could I fathom it, right?) It runs deep. It modulates and corrects every action and answer. I still find myself abiding by it, even as I critique it. Yes, I like to think about the harm in that but I also think it’s as important to identify/label as many parts of this creation, and its reverberations—in my community, in the greater society. There’s nothing and no one it doesn’t permeate. I think a lot of the tension in my poems stems from the speaker’s desire to simultaneously stay true to a macho masculinity while also presenting and maintaining tenderness.
RSR: In the poem, “Empties” you write, “How many hours did I spend/ inventing my childhood? And what did it look like/ to my father who never stopped to play, who instead/ crushed each stubborn can under his heavy boot?” Do you think of poetry as a kind of “play”?
MT: I think play truly happens for me in metaphor. Most of my work is narrative and elegiac in tone and execution, so metaphor is almost like a moment of excitement, or something that means shaking up that narrative. I also understand it as playful, because metaphor is also a way where I/the speaker is once removed. There’s a degree of separation (from the narrative) that opens up this space to be playful—usually that’s where I’m also dipping into being lyrical.
Also, poetry has been, for me, a place where my imagination—something I can’t separate from childhoodness—thrives. What is the imagination if not play? I never wanted to lose that part of me. Thinking about it like that, it makes sense that I ended up in the arts.
RSR: I grew up obsessed with hip hop in Puerto Rico during the early 2000s. I listened to everything from Black Star to Intifada, which back then was still called Conciencia Poética. So I was listening to 90s underground stuff I could get my hands on and early Vico C, then I was going to shows and b-boy competitions with a tape recorder doing interviews because I was an obsessed teenager. Not that many people know about how obsessed I used to be with hip hop, its history, and how it got to Puerto Rico. Then I met my first boyfriend, Edgar Vidal—may he rest in peace—and Edgar had his old crew from the Bronx who he sometimes freestyled with. With him, I learned so much more about hip hop in New York. All this to say, your book probably hit me hard also because of that background. I saw that you tagged a few copies of the book with bubble letters and I got so excited. When did hip hop enter your life and how do you see it relating to your poetry? Oh, and who is your favorite MC?
MT: Being brought up on the West Coast during the era of East Vs. West beefs, hip hop was always around. LA and Hollywood were like an hour away. Though we lived in the hood, the aura of celebrity and rappers was there. I listened to Tupac. Learned and loved The Pharcyde, Tribe Called Quest. Black Star too! So those experiences coupled with an older sister who exposed me to Shakespeare and Dickinson when I was really young really set the foundation.
Not long after high school, I learned about a local open mic spot, A Mic and Dim Lights. Spoken word and slam poetry with a DJ to mix and play music during breaks. That’s actually where I got my first taste of performing poetry. I’d write and memorize pieces that I performed there. I even got to feature there once. Back then, a lot of what I wrote was a mix of hip hop and its rhythms and narrative storytelling that would later become the focus of my writing process. This is probably why I still love a hype, high energy reading event over a quiet-snaps, nodding-type reading.
So many MCs to choose from! I have to say Kendrick Lamar. I have to. West Coast, represent! He was also coming up when I decided on being a poet. So I loved watching his growth and success as I began to move through the literary world.
RSR: Thank you again for taking the time to answer these questions, Michael. My final question is, how do you hope this book moves through the world? Who would you love to see reading it and why?
MT: When I started writing this book, I imagined it for my homies primarily, and I still do; but now they have kids who are getting to the age I was when who I was going to be developed through adolescent experiences. I want this book in their hands too. I want this book in the hands of anyone who uses the term “homie” or the phrase “this foo”—which to me is a masculine cariño. I hope these poems are worthy. That someone may flip through its pages and find themselves in it.
About Michael Torres
Michael Torres was born and brought up in Pomona, CA, where he spent his adolescence as a graffiti artist. In 2019, he received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Loft Literary Center for the Mirrors & Windows Program. His writing has been featured in POETRY, Ploughshares, and other literary journals. Currently, he teaches in the MFA program at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and through the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Connect with him at michaeltorreswriter.com.