PAIGE RIEHL: Thank you, Michael, for taking time to talk about An Incomplete List of Names (Beacon Press, 2020). I was so thrilled for you when I saw that An Incomplete List of Names was a National Poetry Series winner. Your manuscript Homeboys with Slipped Halos was a finalist for the Lindquist and Vennum Prize for Poetry with Milkweed Editions in 2017, and I was curious about how many of the poems in Homeboys with Slipped Halos ended up in An Incomplete List of Names. How much did your manuscript morph during the revision process, and were you actively revising the manuscript at the same time you were sending it out for publication?
MICHAEL TORRES: Thank you for the invitation, Paige.
Homeboys with Slipped Halos was definitely an earlier version of An Incomplete List of Names (AILON). From my thesis project in grad school (at which point the manuscript was titled Letters to a Chain-Link Fence) to the publication of AILON, about 70% percent of the manuscript changed through continual, poem-to-poem revisions, and about three large, big issue, big idea revisions. Homeboys with Slipped Halos was somewhere in the middle, I believe, where most of the poems began circling closer to friendship as opposed to just stories/memories/experiences from growing up in Pomona, California, which is what I first thought the book would be about. In the years following grad school there were crucial experiences that would inspire and help shape how I thought about my manuscript and my writing as a whole. First was attending a retreat for CantoMundo, an organization for Latinx poets. Second was a Jerome Travel grant that supported my research trip to my father’s hometown in Jalisco, Mexico. Finally, a Camargo residency with support, again, from the Jerome Foundation, where I was able to work on some of the most difficult poems in the book. These experiences helped move both me and my manuscript in, I think, its best direction. Throughout this time of revision, I kept submitting to book contests not sure if I was “getting closer” or making some terrible mistake by re-working the manuscript.
PAIGE RIEHL: Tell me about choosing a title for your book. Both Homeboys with Slipped Halos and An Incomplete List of Names are appealing and memorable titles that convey elements of the book’s content and relate directly to specific poems. How did you come up with the title, and did your publisher have preferences or ideas of what it should be?
MICHAEL TORRES: By the time I submitted to the National Poetry Series, the title had already changed to what it would be. For a long time, I really liked Homeboys with Slipped Halos and for different reasons. 1. The sound of it. 2. The nod to Sonia Sanchez’s Homegirls & Handgrenades. 3. The image it was calling back to from one of the poems in the book. Most people who read and gave me feedback for the whole thing liked it. There was one reader, though, who thought it wasn’t a fit. I trusted her opinion even though I disagreed at the time. At first, I didn’t think much about changing the title, and just kept her comment in the back of my mid while I revised the whole collection. It wasn’t until I’d written the “All-American Mexican” series of poems that the book felt like it wanted to encompass more than where I grew up, more than those experiences with my homies. The book began to be about leaving home and grappling with that leaving, with being gone. An Incomplete List of Names was already the title to a section of a poem (“Elegy with Roll Call”), but I hadn’t noticed how much it worked with what the book’s concerns were shaping out to be. There was something about the unfulfilled-ness that the title implied, all of which I appreciated. It spoke to all the complex ways the speaker in my book exists. Homeboys with Slipped Halos was beginning to feel too small to hold what was needing to be explored.
PAIGE RIEHL: I’m always interested in frontispiece poems and how they set the tone and serve as an invitation and a prelude. An Incomplete List of Names opens with “Doing Donuts in an ’87 Mustang 5.0, After My Homie Chris Gets Broken Up With,” a poem in part about masculine friendship and loyalty, a poem that hurtles readers headlong into the book as the speaker hurtles toward danger as a passenger in a speeding car, watching as “chain links swell in his headlights.” There’s physical danger here mingled with the speaker’s inner conflict. It feels like a perfect opening because of its brevity, tension, and the way it introduces a reader to recurring themes in the book. How did you choose which poem to open the book, and how do you view its function as the frontispiece?
MICHAEL TORRES: “Donuts” was the last poem written for the book. When I was revising that poem, I didn’t think it would make it into the collection, as it was written after my book was accepted for publication. The image of that car spinning was just one I kept returning to, not knowing what to do with it for a long time. There are so many versions of that poem. I wrote in third person. I wrote as the driver. I wrote with more of the ex-beloved’s perspective in mind. It was such a tricky poem to figure out. When the poem was done, it came down between that one and the second in the book, an “All-American Mexican” poem, to put first. I had conversations with poets Sara Borjas and Mary Szybist (both of whom helped shape the book in its final stages) about which to put. In the end, I went with a shorter, “easier on the eyes” poem, but I really liked how it brings the reader into the world of the book. Plus the final image of “Donuts” includes a fist and the first line of the next poem is “I don’t know if I made these knuckles for nothing.” That echo, that tension and questioning excited me. It hints at the journey the reader’s about to embark on while introducing a key image in the collection.
PAIGE RIEHL: That’s a perfect segue into my next question, which is about how many poems in this collection include imagery of hands, fists, and knuckles. In “Down/1,” you write, “One boy behind another / like a row of knuckles.” In “On Being Remek,” the “grooves of your knuckles” is “where all men keep secrets.” The masculine ideal—that which is pressured upon these boys—is of being tough, fighting without gloves, punching mailboxes, fists at the ready, knuckles bruised. Yet there’s such a push and pull here within the speaker, an inner gentler self that contemplates the stars, flowers on a cactus, the way a ballerina twirls in a music box. Were you conscious of building this tension between the cultural and societal expectations about masculinity and the speaker’s more contemplative side? How much of your own experiences inform the speaker’s attitudes and conflict?
MICHAEL TORRES: I don’t think those images and their ties to culture and society was in my purview, at least not initially. When I set out to write this book, I just wanted to remain loyal to Pomona, my homies, and the experiences we had there. Because this sense of responsibility was how and where the book was founded, there is, I think, a very thin veil between me and the speaker in my poems.
One more thing: I feel like I write so much about masculinity, and a particularly macho/tough/strong and silent sort of manhood because it’s what naturally seems to have tension with the imaginative self—who is me, who is my speaker. Where I come from, to wield one’s imagination is, in some way, to go against masculinity, against a guarded way of existing that I know well. The kind of masculinity I was raised in—I realize now—is a type of saboteur of the imagination. (When I was young I would be told “You think too much.” Or “Stop asking questions.”) This is why, I believe, in many of my poems tension is inevitable. My speaker can’t easily or forever be “one of the guys” and, at the same time, be sensitive, imaginative, and curious.
PAIGE RIEHL: Frequently while reading An Incomplete List of Names I would just suck in my breath at the grace and power of your comparisons, the way they burst open a poem’s meaning. For example, in “The Pachuco’s Grandson Considers Skipping School,” you write “Yesterday someone threw a book at the sub’s head / All I saw was a bird with paged wings.” The contrast between the violence and beauty startles and reminds us of the poet. Some of my other favorites include how a silver chain around the neck fits “like a slipped halo,” a candle flame becomes “a tiny hand raised / to stop him from watching his parents.” Then there’s the speaker and his father “like unprepared actors waiting for someone to feed us lines that must be said between a father and his son.” You’re able to maintain tension, even in your similes and metaphors. How do you do that? Does figurative language come naturally? In the poems, it feels so effortless, although I’m guessing it’s not!
MICHAEL TORRES: I love this question because the only answer I feel I can offer is kind of a spiritual one. Only when I’m zoned-in and focused on a poem—whether that means I’ve been working on it for an hour in one sitting or I’ve returned to it for a few minutes several days in a row—can I get into the world of the poem, the rhythms of that poem. Once I’m “in it”, it’s easier to explore/discover/imagine figurative representations for the grounded, real-life thing that’s going on on the page. It’s like I have to ride the same emotional wave to get the metaphor to “feel” right, and to get the reader to go along.
PAIGE RIEHL: Your book examines the weight of identity, the challenge of the frequently contradictory expectations regarding what it means to be a man, homie, brother, poet, artist, Mexican, American. It feels like these identities simultaneously fight each other and balance each other in your poems. In “Suspended from School, the Pachuco’s Grandson Watches Happy Days While His Homie Fulfills Prophecy,” for example, his grandfather says, “it was all about balance: / being Mexican at home and white out there.” Was writing the book in part about finding balance? About finding identity? Do you agree with the grandfather’s sentiment in the poem about this kind of balance in life?
MICHAEL TORRES: I’d say the book was about witnessing the balancing act or the attempt to live with having to balance. And what we witness shapes us, has shaped me.
That grandfather line came from a friend of mine who only allowed Spanish to be spoken in her home since, as she explained to me, her children speak English all day at school. Actually, this friend’s experience is representative of many Mexican-American households that I grew up hanging out in. The balancing acts differs, though, depending on the situation. I hardly spoke Spanish growing up because my father wanted to learn English so that he might get better job opportunities. If nothing else, I understood early on that hyphenated and traditionally marginalized groups must learn to exist between things, cultures, selves, etc. Balancing can be asked of us at any time. A lot of my book is just trying to lay witness to that in the hopes of rendering our experiences (and ourselves) as complex and complicated as they/we really were and still are.
PAIGE RIEHL: An Incomplete List of Names does clearly illustrate that balancing act with all of its complexities and challenges. I imagine that having your first book published in the middle of the pandemic presented some unique challenges as well. Will you tell us a little about that experience?
MICHAEL TORRES: It’s a little difficult to remember that when my book came out in October of 2020 so many venues and universities had little to nothing happening as far as virtual editions of their reading series’—we were all just in a sort of tailspin trying to figure out how to function in the pandemic. I spent a lot of time that summer before the book came out working on how to get the word out about it through social media, which was tough because I hardly post.
I’m really grateful to my press, Beacon, for all they did to promote my collection. I’m also grateful for the McKnight Fellowship I had and the consultation hours they provided with Springboard for the Arts. Special shout-out to Ka Oskar Ly with whom I worked with. Ka helped me organize ideas to make a successful launch despite not having anything in-person. This helped me keep a positive and energetic momentum going for the book. When the book launched, I had a few very successful—at least I think they were successful—virtual events that did what I wanted them to do: celebrate the book and who the poems were written for.
PAIGE RIEHL: And finally, will you share what you’re working on now—new sources of inspiration, projects, or maybe poems for another book?
MICHAEL TORRES: My book came out a little after my daughter was born—me and my wife’s first child—and since then we had a second child, so all of my time including writing time revolves around their lives. It’s an understatement to say that that has completely changed how I write and think about writing. Very quickly I learned to be totally flexible with everything writing related. I basically follow their daily rhythms. So I might write at five in the morning, or around one in the afternoon, or nine at night. These little spurts of time often happen while I’m holding one of them, as they sleep. All of this is to say that many of my new poems are in various stages of revision. The newest of the new, because I might return to one of them after a week or longer, tend to look unfamiliar when I see them, as if someone else saved that poem on my laptop. I really love this for how I can revise without a certain personal attachment. I’m interested in what that might mean for my next poetry collection, whenever that book starts to take shape.
I do have a series of flash essays that were recently published (June 2022) in The Sun magazine, and I like to think those will be part of a larger nonfiction project that is concerned with fatherhood and, again, masculinity.