Manuel Paul López’s books and chapbook include These Days of Candy (Noemi Press, 2017), and He co-edited (City Works Press, 2016). A CantoMundo fellow, hiswork has been published in , and among others. His work has been supported by the San Diego Foundation’s Creative Catalyst Fund. He lives in San Diego and teaches at San Diego City College.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
The publication of my first book, Death of a Mexican and Other Poems, was a magical time. I’m grateful to Beth Spencer and Bear Star Press for publishing my book. Beth remains a wonderful mentor and friend. I respect her very much. When I received the news about the publication, I FedEx’ed her a pound of the very best Imperial Valley carne asada, an Imperial Valleyite’s gesture of lifelong gratitude.
My dream was always to have a book on the library shelf, to help bulk up the Lopez’, you know. It’s quite remarkable to have a childhood dream come true, and more importantly, realizing that there are wonderful people in the world who helped you do it. I’ll never forget that; I’ll never forget them.
It’s been just over ten years since the publication of my first book, and I think my new work continues to be in conversation with those poems to some degree, but I’d like to feel that I’m also forging new directions. I’ve read a lot more since then, spent more hours in the library, more life experience, travel, heartache, joy, more seat time at the keys, and continue to do so. It’s an ongoing apprenticeship. It’s quite liberating to know that I know nothing about that what obsesses me.
2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?
I actually came to fiction first, but when poetry began to noticeably impact me, I was in college. It bit me hard, and I haven’t left its side since. I learned quickly that poetry was this immense, ever-changing ecosystem that I could draw energy from. The possibilities seemed endless, as they still do today.
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?
I’m usually working on four or five different things at one time. I dip into each as I pace around the room. I’ve tried to be more intentional about working on one piece until it’s finished, but my brain doesn’t work that way, and it resists at every turn. This might be a simple euphemism for my utter distractibility or lack of discipline, but I enjoy working, I love it, and that’s what’s important to me. There’s no race, no competition. I must enjoy what I’m doing, otherwise, why bother?
I almost always have a running Word Doc where I drop ideas or paste things that I find on the Internet. Sometimes I come back to them, and sometimes I don’t. Lots of odd lines and passages. In addition, I keep little journals on me most times, places where I scribble delightful nonsense in the most inopportune moments of the day.
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?
The poem typically begins with a single line or word for me. As a kid, I made a habit out of writing on little scraps of paper. I had drawers and shoeboxes full of them. Notes on tissue paper, matchbooks, corners of homework assignments, zigzag paper, shoebox lids, anything. I never really thought about them, and I must’ve lost hundreds of these odd jottings, but for some reason, I was compelled to continue. This is something I still do, though I try and relegate everything to my little journals. I’m sure others have a similar practice. It’s rare for me to go back to them, but somewhere in me, I know they have existed, which means something, I guess.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I enjoy readings. I’m grateful for anyone who sticks around and listens. For someone who’s not much of a conversationalist, these are my moments to show people I can actually speak. As for the creative process, occasionally I’ll hear a sour line while reading and revise it later, especially if it’s new work. It helps to read them aloud and in front of an audience. Sometimes I might feel a bit unsure of a particular poem, image or line, but after reading it publicly, my thoughts toward the poem might improve. On the other hand, I might love a particular piece, but after reading it in front of others, my feelings swing the other direction.
Because I like to read new work, there is often an anxiety that emerges during readings. It’s exhilarating to have something new go over well, and by that I don’t necessarily mean with the audience, of course that’s nice, but it’s really me who’s trying to quiet the inner critic. Then there are those moments when I’m in the middle of reading something new that is completely not working, and I begin to wonder, how am I going to get myself out of this shit pile? That’s a different kind of anxiety, though one that fuels the next step of the process, which is to salvage what I can and dump the rest.
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?
I suppose there are questions that I’m trying to answer, but I’m not sure that I want to know what they are. The tug that gets me to the page each day is an elusive one, and I wouldn’t want to interrogate it so much that I’d find the answer and stop. It’s just something that I do. “The unknown is addictive.” –Fauzi Arap
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?
I think writers should produce the most honest work that they are capable of writing at any given moment.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I’m honored and grateful and benefit immensely from the support and vision of an editor. For my new book, These Days of Candy (Noemi Press), Carmen Giménez Smith and Farid Matuk were awesome. They really helped me shape the collection. Híjole, they are brilliant, amazing people, whose work I’ve learned from and been inspired by before ever having the unique opportunity to work with them in this capacity. It was dreamy. If I still lived in the Imperial Valley, they would’ve received a pound of the Valley’s best carne asada, too. They are very special people.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
“Don’t try, do.”—Martha Julia López. My nana said this years before Yoda’s little ass did, and that’s a fact.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I try to write first thing in the morning for a couple of hours and return later in the day after doing lots of stuff in between. If not, oh well, I’ll try again the next day.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I look toward music and books. If books and music surround me, I’m open, excited, and constantly learning.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
That’s easy, the smell of fresh café in the morning coupled with the music of José Alfredo Jiménez.
13 - 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?
If I put on a joint by Miles Davis, forget about it, I’m in it all day. Beyond music, I’m an information junky. I’m constantly rummaging. I must also add the energy and momentary clarity I receive when I visit the ocean.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Jean-Michel Basquiat has always been an enduring literary, historical, musical, visual, and linguistic influence. Clarice Lispector. Nicanor Parra. And so many others! O, please don’t make me do this! Ha! Lists make me nervous. Many will be left out, and then I will need to spend the rest of my day offering penance.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’d love to take a submarine ride with Steve Zissou and Seu Jorge while taking turns singing Bowie tunes.
16 - 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?
I’d like to be a serious jazz musician, a trumpet player. I’d also like to play shortstop for as long as I could backhand a grounder deep in the 5.5 hole and still throw out a runner, though I know that time has long passed me by.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
It’s just something that I do, though lots of other things that I do are important to me as well.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Marosa di Giorgio’s I Remember Nightfall (Ugly Duckling Press). Once in a while one comes across a book that seems to narrate the interior, a voiceover of sorts. Interestingly, I recently had a dream that featured Protomartyr’s song “Night-Blooming Cereus” while a recognizable though unnameable voice recited pieces di Giorgio’s “The History of Violets”. In the dream I ran through a field of flowers lost like a motherfucker, huffing and puffing, taking all that flowery goodness into my lungs, lavender sky, darkness approaching. Oye, I was nervous as hell. This dream was vivid af, beautiful and eerie all at the same time. Mysteriously, this book did this to me.
Last great film, hmmm, the Coltrane documentary Chasing Trane was fantastic, despite some omissions. I enjoyed this film quite a bit. Just what I needed in this fucked up political moment. I must also add, Chavela, the new documentary about the late, great Chavela Vargas. I wept on several occasions.
19 - What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a number of short verse plays. I haven’t stopped to think if they’re any good yet, but I enjoy making them.