Gabriel Ojeda-Sague is a Miami <-> Philly gay, Latino Leo living in Philadelphia, PA. He is the author of the poetry books ->Jazzercise is a Language (The Operating System, 2018), about the exercise craze of the 1980s, and Oil and Candle (Timeless, Infinite Light, 2016), on ritual and racism. He is also the author of chapbooks on gay sex, Cher, the Legend of Zelda, and anxious bilingualism. His third book Losing Miami, on the potential sinking of Miami due to climate change and sea level rise, is forthcoming from Civil Coping Mechanisms.
1 - How did your first book or chapbook change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
I’ve said before that my first chapbook JOGS taught me how to write. It was an experiment in using the same words as are in the 1977 book The Joy of Gay Sex to create poems. Though I have some regrets about how I did it, the writing taught me a lot and my language today is very similar to what that book is like. I still revel in the kind of campiness beside darkness that is found there. Nowadays, my work is less guided by conceptual constraint, which motivated much of my early work, and I am less afraid of talking about myself. Whether that’s good or bad, I’m not quite sure yet. I’m still interested, however, in taking on close analysis of media people find unworthy, as I do in Jazzercise is a Language.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
Actually, I didn’t come to poetry first! In fact, my reading and writing both started in fiction. As a teen, I read a lot of Faulkner, Joyce, and Woolf. I basically had a big thing for the modernist titans. I tried writing stories for a bit, even did a few in college, but I could never stick with the practice. If I blame it on a personal flaw, it might be that I just struggle to write narrative. I guess I’m not very interested in telling a story. I’m interested in trickery more so. I started reading poetry when I was exposed to poets. Other than a few, I really didn’t read poetry until college. And it took reading poetry to feel like I could and should write poetry. And it stuck.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
When it comes to book length projects, it tends to start at an idea, or even a phrase. And I try to write thinking of this idea to see where it might take me. For example, Jazzercise is a Language started with exactly that phrase, said after watching a compilation of Judi Sheppard Missett and commenting on the specific words she was using. And I thought it was a nice phrase and could mean something in practice on the page. So, I started working from that idea: what is the language of Jazzercise and how can you play with it. And I started to write out based on these ideas. What I had I thought was pretty convincing, so I decided to embark on it and see how far it took me. And then I had a book. I basically think the best way to know if a project is viable is to start writing it. This is also why I end up trashing a lot of projects. Once the thing is done, I tend to edit little. Not because I’m against it, I just find nothing inspiring in the process, personally.
4 - Where does a poem usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
A poem almost always starts as a phrase I think of. I usually write these phrases in a note on my phone and when I make time to write I see where they might take me. For example, the phrase “a beehive is someone’s backdrop” came to me in the shower, randomly, and for while I couldn’t figure out where to go with it. One day I was writing a poem, one that began because I decided I wanted a poem that started with the words “Simply put” (which, because I’m me, I thought was really funny) and I came to part where I described never being alone, and I thought hey! it’s like living in a scene that is a beehive! And so, I switched the phrase to “this backdrop is someone’s beehive” and stuck it in the poem where it works quite well. So, the poems come like that, as if from a room in my brain that occasionally lets out odd phrases.
I don’t tend to collect poems into books. When I am writing a book, a mode I feel very comfortable with, I am thinking of it as a book the entire time. Very rarely am I surprised to find that I have a book. Individual poems, or page poems, I see almost as a test field for me. Where I am doing my most serious and committed work is in a book. An individual poem is like a short test for ideas of mine, and will likely never be collected into a book.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Oh, they’re hugely part of it! I don’t know if it’s clear to a reader, but I focus a lot on the sounds of words and often will put in lines only because of the sounds of them. I’m working always on sound. So I love to read the poems aloud. I’ve said before that I find the reading to be an instance of the poem, and not necessarily a truer or falser version of the poem. Implicit in that is that the written version is also just an instance of the poem.
But the bigger reason readings are important to me is because my work is only possible because of the community of poets in Philadelphia, where I live now. The community meets in readings and similar events and we grow together. It’s amazing what my peers do. And I’m really blessed any time I can read for them and any time I get to see them read.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are? / 7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
If you don’t mind, I’m combining two of your questions because I think they are related. I have held for a long time that writing does not “do” anything. I do not believe in an “activist poetics” as such. Instead, I think writing does something quieter. I think that the book creates a climate in the mind, for a question to be warmed, an anxiety cooled, or an apparatus bothered. In other words, I see poetry as the making of a simulation of thinking and experience, so that others can tune into the simulation in whatever way they deem right for themselves. This is what I believe the writer can do, ask others to interface. When it comes to me, I choose to write on issues of gayness, Latinidad, exilism and marginalized media. This is because my mind comes to these issues often. I find it interesting to consider the media we take in and how we can analyze it. I find my life to be composed of and enriched by these sister identities (gay, Latino, child of Cuban exiles) so I write in relation to them. My overarching question is how does the gay Latino subject read the world. But my poetry on this, with its specific edge, does the same work as somebody else’s poetry on a different subject, which is to simulate the mind on record.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I hope that I’m an easy writer to work with! I try to recognize the work editors are putting in, especially in the small press world, especially when nobody is being paid, and when I do recognize that, a lot of the decisions and changes they suggest are easier to swallow. I can usually take the small changes that come with editing a manuscript, and I’m lucky to have never had an editor who truly wanted to take a knife to my work. You’ve always got to give a little room and recognize that your poem draft is not the end-all-be-all text of the poem, and that it can change in the publishing process, but you also can’t accept being stepped on. I just want to make sure every change is a conversation.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The best advice I’ve heard is the way CA Conrad talks about imaginary careers. I don’t have an exact quote off hand, but he has said before that there is no reason a poet should step on others to defend or build up their imaginary career. Like Ashbery says, there is no such thing as a famous poet. And almost none of us, at least in the small press world, are making money off of this stuff. So better to be generous and help others grow in writing than to stomp forward until you have—what? the nothing career of poets. Nobody should be writing for fame. When I choose that I want fame more than other things, I’ll become a Youtuber.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to essays to short stories)? What do you see as the appeal?
When I was young I wanted to write in every genre, as I mentioned above, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve committed full heartedly to poetry. I see my essay practice as a critical one, not as a “creative nonfiction” practice, so it’s easier to separate mentally. As in, here is my creative practice (poetry), here is my critical (nonfiction). It’s a very reductive binary, but sometimes setting that binary up can help you clear your thoughts. It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything that wasn’t a poem or an essay. Maybe one day I’ll return to it.
11 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
My typical day doesn’t include writing, I’m ashamed to say. My typical day goes like this: wake up, go to work, come home, work second job remote, make dinner (unless it’s my partner’s turn), play a video game, read, go to bed. I know a lot of people who write every day, but it’s just never been my thing. So, what I typically end up doing is, if I don’t have a current project in progress, saying to myself “jeez, I should try to write something today” and I’ll dedicate a bit of time to doing that and see what comes out. But if I have a current project, I’m like an animal. I write fast and edit very little. Oil and Candle took me 2 weeks to write, Jazzercise is a Language took me a semester. When I’ve got a good idea going, I can really hammer into it. It’s the “off season” that is a little tough.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
The text in the room around me is the best immediate remedy. My apartment is full of prints and posters with text on them. And of course, every home has a lot of objects with text on them: food containers, clothing, toiletries. If I am stumped in the middle of a line, looking for a good word, I scan around me and see what I can find. If it’s a more serious stump, that is a tougher question to answer.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
14 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I’d say my biggest non-book-artist influences are Stephen Sondheim, drag queens, and certain musical ladies like Björk, Cher, Bernadette Peters, and Joni Mitchell. I also get a lot of my tender heartedness from gay visual artists, with a big focus on Cy Twombly, Tom of Finland, and David Hockney.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Oh, I could fill a lot of pages here. Let me be brief, but divide this into two categories. The authors I tend to read the most and who affect my work from that reading are: CA Conrad, Rae Armantrout, Mei-mei Berssenbrugge, Sawako Nakayasu, Caroline Bergvall, Samuel Delany, Yoko Ono, David Melnick, Brandon Shimoda, and Rosmarie Waldrop. The writers who are my big in-person influences and who help me in the lived experience of being a writer: Raquel Salas-Rivera, Emji Spero, Julia Bloch, Alina Pleskova, Roberto Harrison, Emma Sanders, Andy Emitt, and Frank Sherlock. And you can really throw in the whole Philly poetry scene as influences on me and my work.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d like to write a song and sing it in a public setting. It has long been a dream, but there are lots of barriers to entry there, many of which are only psychological.
17 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
The boys of my immediate family are/were musicians, so that feels like the natural step. I used to play oboe (the details for why I stopped are for another time) and I really loved it. I miss playing oboe and somewhere in me there’s a symphony member. Every time I hear the sound of it, I feel like I have a sun lamp shining on my collarbone.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
What made me write was how many good books I was reading and seeing in the world. I needed to put myself there.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
The last great book I read was Ann Lauterbach’s Clamor. But that is an old book. The last great book I read from this year was Mark Johnson’s Can of Human Heat. And that’s one too many people are sleeping on. The most recent great film I watched happened to be Death Becomes Her. Somehow, as a gay man, I hadn’t seen that movie until Halloween 2017. But the last great film I saw in the theaters was easily The Witch.
20 - What are you currently working on?
For the first time in a while, I actually don’t have any current committed book length projects. I’m testing out many ideas right now and letting myself be a free spirit. But one thing I am trying to put energy into is a series of love poems. I know, an experimentalist doing a love poem, sounds romantic, but hey, they’re pretty good I think.