Maribel Narration: “Roses are red, violets are blue, honey is sweet and so are you.” We’ve all heard a variation of this cliche poem at one point or another. For some of us, this is the extent of our familiarity with poetry. Sure, many of us have read some of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Even back in high school I learned about famous poets like William Butler Yeats, Edgar Allan Poe, and a little about Emily Disckinson. Which is why it comes as no surprise that many Latinos –myself included – associate poetry with dusty leather-bound books and old timey white people.
I’ve always wanted to try being someone who enjoys reading poetry all afternoon, while sitting next to a fire and sipping on some tea, but this just hasn’t happened yet. Could it be because my high school teachers never taught about Latino poets like Pablo Neruda, Gabriela Mistral, or Octavio Paz? So I never saw myself in the poetry demographic. Or maybe because my college professors never assigned us to read the works of badass women like Rosario Castellanos or Juana Ines de la Cruz. Is it possible that many of us are stuck with the idea that poetry is boring or hard to understand? As I found out in this episode, poetry doesn’t have to be dull or sound old. Join me as we enjoy a poetry 101 refresher and enlightening reading from a Latino poet you definitely didn’t learn about in history class.
You’re listening to the Pulso Podcast, we’ll be right back.
Maribel Narration: About a month ago, I was feeling uninspired, until my fellow Pulso producer, Charlie Garcia convinced me to read a little poetry. He thought a specific Latino poet could help me get my inspiration back. “Ughhh poetry” I replied, rolling my eyes, picturing something too abstract and confusing to be enjoyable.Nevertheless, I followed Charlie’s advice and decided to give the poet Gabriel Dozal and his book a shot. I was half-way through it before I realized nothing about Gabriel Dozal’s work was giving off “poetry” vibes. As a writer and poet who grew up on the U.S. /Mexico border in the town of El Paso, Texas, Gabriel’s style blends the lines between what it means to be Mexican and American.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Tell me what kind of poet are you?
Gabriel Dozal: I’m a border poet.
Maribel Narration: He says plainly.
Gabriel Dozal: I definitely like jokes and puns and wordplay and rhyming.
Maribel Narration: Gabriel inherited a love for the arts from his father, Roberto, who was an art teacher for over 30 years.
Gabriel Dozal: He was a remarkable art teacher. But he’s also a remarkable artist. He can make an oil painting or an acrylic painting look just like a photo. Now, I cannot draw a lick. I can’t draw a line outside of a paper bag. But, it’s in me. This kind of, like, artistic expression. So I think I couldn’t help but take that to poetry.
Maribel Narration: As a grownup, Gabriel realized he also had inherited his father’s love for teaching others. And now he’s a creative writer instructor at the University of Arizona. Which is perfect for me, because I really need some poetry lessons.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Can you give us a poetry one-on-one?
Gabriel Dozal: It’s really line breaks. The way that the line can be shorter than in prose, than in fiction or nonfiction. That’s the biggest difference. And how poets manipulate and change those line breaks. is kind of what makes that art form for me. Now, of course there’s metaphors, there’s language play, there’s puns.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Poetry doesn’t have to rhyme?
Gabriel Dozal: Of course it doesn’t have to rhyme but I also don’t want to be afraid of rhyming either. I think a lot of writers, a lot of poets, are afraid to rhyme, as if it’s some kind of old school thing. Artists shouldn’t turn their back on what humans find attractive in art, and in poetry, it’s repetition. It’s rhymes.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Would you say that a hip hop artist is a poet? Like someone who raps
Gabriel Dozal: hundred percent. A hundred percent
Maribel Narration: Ok now we’re speaking my language. Of course music is poetry, especially Hip Hop. Anyone familiar with Tupac’s song Changes knows a good poet…
(Clip of “Changes” by Tupac: “I see no changes, all I see is racist faces. Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races”)
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Do you have any other music that you listen to that you would say kind of sounds poetic to you?
Gabriel Dozal: Oh, absolutely. I mean, Uh, Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan. That’s a wonderful cross section of poetry and lyric.
(Clip of “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan: “And you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone, for the times they are a-changin”)
Gabriel Dozal: I’m jealous of musicians, because you have music to back you up, to complement the words. in poetry, you don’t have any of that music, So you have to create that musicality. Lyrics can be a little bit more vague. They can be very broad, and still work, and still hit with an audience. I think poetry has to be incredibly detailed, incredibly specific, and kind of enact that mind’s eye, Like, you close your eyes, and you can see the image in your head.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: So are poems meant to be not straightforward? Are they meant to confuse you in some way?
Gabriel Dozal: I’ve really tried to stay away from the theory language, critical theory type of language because poetry is already a condensed and dense form, It is, it’s already complex, 2023. Poetry allows you to say multiple things at the same time. That’s what the line break does.
a quick poetry lesson. A poet can cut off language throughout the poem. Now, by doing that, you create your own idea, your own thought in one line. And then when it connects to the next line, it creates a second thought. So you’re able to add layers of depth here. And you’re able to say two, three, four things with one line or two lines of poetry. I think that’s important to understand when reading poetry.
Maribel Narration: In Gabriel’s poetry, you can find all kinds of depth and meanings within the dystopian world he created in his book. It’s like nothing I’ve ever read. A weird cross between life as a border crosser and the movie The Matrix. When I say “weird”, I mean that as a compliment, because Gabriel does a fantastic job recreating the vibe of the strange and confusing place that is the U.S./Mexico border. I think it’s evident that he is a fan of SciFi, and has seen The Matrix a few times.
Gabriel Dozal: That is an amazing movie. I watched it recently. I hadn’t seen it for like 20 years. It’s one of the most powerful metaphors for our times. Blew my mind how good it still is,
But I think, in a way, in the book, you’re Neo and you’re Morpheus. You give yourself the red and blue pill and you decide as you read the book which one you’re going to take. Because there’s all kinds of trap doors in this book. And that’s what poetry is very good at.
Maribel Narration: And that’s exactly how poetry works in my mind, it’s always open to personal interpretation, like many movies or books out there. What I’m learning is that poetry is not something we have to take so seriously, at least not always.
Gabriel Dozal: I wanted there to be dark humor. The story that I’m trying to tell is actually quite simple. It’s two siblings, Primitivo and Primitiva, which for, I mean, your Spanish speaking listeners will know that this is, you know, an older name, people aren’t really called Primitivo or Primitiva anymore, But it has a type of power, Because it means first born. It’s like the first one in the border simulator.
Maribel Narration: Gabriel is also commenting on himself, as a kid from the 1980’s who remembers vividly what life before the internet and touch screens was like.
Gabriel Dozal: Before social media completely changed our lives. I’m commenting on the fact that I’ve seen technology pass me by, change my world, and me having to play catch up.
Maribel Narration: In The Border Simulator, Gabriel takes us on a journey from the perspective of two siblings trying to cross the border, navigating a strange world where most people wouldn’t really want to go.
Gabriel Dozal: And then there’s a voice of customs who is kind of like the dark, evil enemy, Who’s like poking fun at them, And that was important too, because I want there to be tension.
Maribel Narration: At times the poems are funny, in an ironic kind of way. The one that stuck out to me is called “There are plenty of places where the border doesn’t exist”. I asked Gabriel to explain the backstory of it before reading it to us.
Gabriel Dozal: What I’m trying to do is play with this idea of the simulation and play with what it’s like. for not just someone to cross the border, but what it’s like for someone to live their life through a phone or through social media So for instance, there’s a part where it says you see a cat and then you see it twice. One of the first things you see in The Matrix is like a cat and there’s like a glitch. And then the cat kind of comes through, another time there’s several voices here, So, in the poem, you’ll hear me say customs, and that means customs is speaking, Or when I say primitivo and I pause, that means primitivo is speaking. So, here, customs is speaking about the border and the border simulator, which is on purpose a sort of a vague term. I do that on purpose so that the reader can imagine their own world.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Okay, let’s hear you read this one.
Gabriel Dozal: Okay.
There are plenty of places where the border doesn’t exist. We are all post host, I mean, post hawk crossers. We’ve already crossed, but we have to give the appearance that we are new here. Our crossing is driven by our passions, and sometimes our passions cross without us.
The great variety of ports of entry is what gives the border its charm. Well, if effectiveness means charm, then yes. See how I just fit one word inside another? Anyone can sneak these words past.
Customs. For most crossers, the border app is the border. The poem is supposed to glitch here and be aware of its sewing and its poorly seamed bedazzled jeans. I know you are already aware of the glitches in the border simulator.
You see a cat, and then you see it twice. You see primitivo, and then you see primitivo twice. We’re going to A B test this crosser. What words get less engagement from customs? How many times have you clicked on a photo of yourself? Primitivo. Our father, Halloween and Texas. How should primitiva play her hand?
She tries to hide her hand with her other hand. One farm hand reveals the other. How many times have you clicked on yourself? Well, a picture of yourself, at least. Customs shows you a photo of you crossing the border. Is this you in the photo? It looks so much like you. It must be you. Primitiva was only interested in creepypasta stories about the border.
But what was so creepy about the border simulator? It was creepy because of how quickly the definitions took refuge in the crossers. Collecting for so long, the language got so big that even me, Primitivo, could fit inside its words. My favorite word is residente. The combo of tooth and status, a ghost word hidden in Primitiva, the guest host of the Border Simulator.
See how I just fit one word inside another? Anyone can sneak these words past.
All right. So what are you saying here? What’s happening? I’m commenting on our current culture. I’m commenting on how language works, on how there’s words hidden inside of words. I create words, right, like residiente.
Residiente is not a real word in Spanish, It’s a combination of two… and resident, right? and that’s something that poetry is beautiful at doing. You know, poetry can say multiple things. I can bombard you with ideas, but hopefully I’m doing it in a fun way.
There’s also, like, stuff about journalism here, Like, we’re gonna A B test this crosser. A B test is something that journalism does with headlines, they see which headline gets more engagement, and then they choose which headline they go with. I’m also playing with misheard language.
from the border, you might hear a phrase in English and you’re a Spanish speaker and then you, you, you mistranslate it, So, for instance, there’s a line that says, our father Halloween in Texas, That’s supposed to be like, you know, like that, the, the prayer, our father, hallowed be thy name.
Maribel Narration: A few days after I listened to Gabriel read this poem, I went back and read it again on my own. And surprisingly, I made a new discovery… In the line where he writes
Gabriel Dozal: The great variety of ports of entry is what gives the border its charm.
Well, if effectiveness means charm, then yes. See how I just fit one word inside another? Anyone can sneak these words past.”
Maribel Narration: I realized that here, Gabriel uses the word “charm” to mean two opposing things, a pleasant one which is charm, and the unpleasant one, which is harm. This blew my mind because I completely missed it the first time. That’s the thing about poetry, it’s like you discover something new each time you read it. Now I understand why people keep poetry books forever. It used to seem like a cliche to me, holding on to something that just sits and collects dust. But it doesn’t! It actually expands each time you flip open the page, a new idea springs up, and a new meaning unfolds. I asked Gabriel to break down another poem before reading it.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: the last poem of the book, it’s called You’ve Always Been a Border Simulator. So talk a little bit about what it means,
Gabriel Dozal: I was trying to introduce readers to the world or trying to give readers more of a foothold into the world, This is a tried and true trope about being from the border. You hear about this in the Selena movie, Where the dad is like, you have to know Mexican culture better than the Mexicans. And you got, you have to know American culture better than the Americans,
You go to Mexico and your family tells you you’re not Mexican, but you don’t feel American 100%, so there’s this feeling of not feeling real, but not feeling simulated. you feel like the place that you belong is the border, but I’m also trying to include ideas about technology, what it’s like to experience the border through videos on YouTube, through video games. I’m also talking about the trials of anyone who comes to the border for a better life.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: All right. Let’s hear it.
Gabriel Dozal: All right, here we go.
You’ve always been a border simulator resident. Never real or simulated. And the crossers see that you’re not real or simulated, and they’re not sure if they are a mural of rural crossers.
You simulate what a person with papers would say would act like so that you can cross over. Your accent is hard to understand. You have trouble saying your name, and you say it anyway. Customs are suspicious because you can’t say your name. So, they take you in and make you paint murals of crossers at the border.
The murals warn crossers of what might be waiting for them, the unswerving future, an 8 bit desert. All day you paint in the border simulator portraits of crossers, and their portrait is their face, covered by a phone. You paint murals of crossers going into the simulation, their faces also covered by their phones.
But you can see their eyes, and they’re scared of crossing. You ask them to pretend there is water. They can only pretend there is water. So long. After your service to the simulator, you practice traversing your words, or the simulation traverses you. This simulation isn’t a question of fake or reality, but a performance of saying your name.
If the simulation survives, you also survive, and you keep it alive by crossing. The simulation exists because you cross into it and you love the threshold. When you speak of the border simulator, you’re really speaking about blank. How a dollar sign can open up a whole new world of crossing. You go to the front of the line.
Customs asks you less questions. In simulation, you can pay off la policia. It’s harder to do that in reality, but it’s not the result you want. And the simulation is a results based game. When you speak of the border simulator, you’re really speaking about the X where the two worlds meet.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Nice. Okay. So I have a question. What is he painting? Or what are you painting here? when you’re saying All day long you paint in the border simulator.
Gabriel Dozal: So, throughout the book, there’s this, made up situation where as you cross the border, Customs makes you paint portraits and murals of other crossers. Now, this is a completely made up situation, this doesn’t actually exist, But I’m commenting on what it’s like to be from the border and to be expected to write about the border. Expected to create art about the border. I’ve wrestled with this my whole life. You get pigeonholed as a border rider. I’ve taken one hundred creative writing classes. Every instructor says, you should write about the border. You need to write about being Mexican American. Part of this book, Maribel, is me poking fun at that a little bit. The customs agents are constantly shifting. Yes, I’m talking about real customs and border patrol agents. Sometimes. Sometimes I’m cross. I’m talking about the powers that be that expect you to write about something. it’s kind of like a meta poem where I’m poking fun at that, where they’re like, Hey, paint murals about these crossers, paint about them, talk about them.
Maribel Narration: I know that so many people feel that way, and exactly as you described, you are of this ethnicity, therefore you should only write about this ethnicity, and your people, and the things that you know, and the places you come from. And we’re not allowed to explore beyond that, which is also why poetry in this scenario is so intriguing to me, I don’t want to make a generalization but I don’t feel like poetry is something that we as Latinos are often encouraged to explore. So I asked Gabriel how we can make poetry more accessible and interesting to Latinos, while encouraging creators – myself included -to write about things that go beyond personal experiences.
Gabriel Dozal: It’s something I wrestle with in myself about being from the border, writing about the border, I’m embracing it and poking fun at it at the same time. This is something that poetry allows you to do. Uniquely, I can be of two minds about something because of those line breaks. I can say one thing and then I can break the line and say something else on that line. I want to make it as dynamic, as energetic, as readable, as accessible as possible, while still having a high art form. An art form that offers a lot of depth to the reader. I want to have it both ways, Monty Bell, and I know we can do it.
Maribel Quezada-Smith: Ha, I love it. I’m down for it.