Interview with P. E. Garcia

By Jené Gutierrez

Jené graciously agreed to step in for Paul Adams who is traveling this week. Following are excerpts from multiple discussions with P.E. Garcia. We’re happy to get his thoughts on emerging writers, Twitter, and marginalized voices.

What are you currently reading?

Probably not a sexy answer, but right now I'm reading Writing and Community Engagement. I'm interested in working on some community-based writing projects, so I'm trying to sharpen my skills. When I need a break from the theory-heavy stuff, though, I keep reading through Sonya Vatomsky's new chapbook, My Heart in Aspic, and Akashic's Eight New Generation African Poets. Both collections are just stunning examples of contemporary poetry. I highly recommend that everyone buy them for themselves and for all their friends and family members.

Which emerging writers are you most excited about right now?

I know I'm going to forget some folks, and I'm sorry if I do, but here's a list of people I can think of off the top of my head that make me feel excited about writing:

•    Sonya Vatomsky

•    Madeleine Dubus

•    Tatiana Ryckman

•    Laura A. Warman

•    S. Cearley

•    Ka Bradley

•    mensah demary

•    Die Dragonetti

•    Sarah Xerta

•    Kia Alice Groom

•    Joshua Jen Espinoza

•    Penny Goring

•    Donald Quist

•    Rion Amilcar Scott

•    Emily Siegenthaler

•    Brenna Kischuk

•    Rachel Milligan

•    Wendy Ortiz

•    Pretty much anyone being published in The Offing these days. They're great.

How are you adjusting to the change from Little Rock to Philadelphia? What can you say about the literary communities in each place? 

It's really not much of an adjustment for me, in a way. I think everyone expects me to be shocked at all the differences between a Big City and the relatively small place I come from, but if I've learned anything from all my traveling about, it's that folks are basically the same everywhere. People are definitely more interested in Ben Franklin here, though.

I do love Philadelphia. And I love Little Rock. They're both very scrappy places, I think, and I've always identified with that.

The literary community in Little Rock is great. It's where I learned to write, and a lot of my published work actually comes from my time in the small writing collective I had there, and I've made friends in writing workshops there that I hope will last the rest of my life.

So far, the Philadelphia literary community has been amazingly warm and welcoming. I've never been invited to so many readings before (in fact I think there's one tonight?). And I just got invited to read at Tattooed Mom on August 27th. That will be my first reading in Philly, and I'm already pretty nervous about it.

Considering that you do come from a small place, how influential have online literary communities been in your development as a writer and artist?

It's probably more influential than I even realize. Online literary communities have exposed me to a bevy of interesting, challenging writers (for example, several of the ones I mentioned above) and that, in turn, has led me to challenge and push myself in my own writing. 

How does Twitter inform your writing or your ideas? Do you use it—inadvertently or not—as a sort of marketing tool?

Twitter has certainly been a good place for me to make connections to lots of writers and editors that I deeply admire and who have pushed me in lots of new and interesting directions.

It's certainly a marketing tool, though it makes me feel a little gross to say that. It's really just a matter of practicality: it's free, and I can reach a lot of people very quickly. If I could afford it, I'd probably do other, more serious marketing things, like book trailers and skywriting.

Could you tell us a little bit about the hotline you set up for your chapbook? Why did you set it up? Have people called it? What do they say?

The hotline was really just a joke—I shot off a tweet, as I do, without thinking much about it. But then I remembered that I actually have a Google Voice account already set up for my students (I learned early on that if I gave them my personal number that they'd be calling me endlessly). So I just thought it'd be a funny thing where I could actually interact with folks who read my work, and even if they said mean things to me, then maybe I could at least get a poem out of it or something.

No one's called it, to my dismay, but I've gotten a few texts, all of which have been very supportive and kind. One person even asked for a signed copy, which was a nice surprise!

Of all your writing and art, what are you proudest to have created?

Hands-down, "Weary" is one of my favorite short stories I've ever written. It's also a little bit of an unusual piece for me, as it's heavily grounded in realism. It doesn't really fit in with a lot of my other work, and I've always been interested in that. 

I'm also proud of the work I did at Queen Mob's Tea House, when I was a part of that crew. My essay on Kenneth Goldsmith garnered me some good attention, but it was something I wrote purely out of frustration. That interests me too.

I have a tendency in my writing to avoid emotion and to obscure things by being playful with form. But I think it's when I'm most vulnerable that I actually feel most successful as an artist and writer, whatever that might mean.

What project(s) are you working on now?

I'm working on ten things at once all the time. I have the beginnings of a longer work, and I'm starting to compile some of my stories into a collection. I have a few poems scribbled down, too, and a few other things here and there. I just try to take it as it comes, and we'll see if anything coherent comes out of it. I'm constantly pushing my work out to publications, getting rejected, editing, pushing it back out, etc. It's a writer's life, I suppose.

Your writing, especially this recent chapbook, seems to be informed by a sense of depression or despair, and even a resignation. How would you say you move through emotional states when you write? Do you often write at low points or do you need time away from some of the deeper feelings to process them creatively?

I would agree that a lot of my writing comes from low points, but I find that if I write when I'm actively depressed, it usually comes out pretty terrible and overwrought. Some distance is usually a good thing, I think, for me and my writing—some private processing. But my writing is certainly a way for me to try to grapple and understand the world (and whatever pain resides there). 

What is the hardest part about writing for you?

I think failing is the hardest part. Not failing in the sense of rejection—though that sucks, too—but writing terrible things and not being satisfied with my writing. That's hard. It's hard to work for months on a piece and then have to say to yourself, "Well, this is just kind of terrible." But failing and being terrible is all a part of the process, and it's because of my failures that I'm driven forward.

How, if at all, has your writing changed as your presence in the community grows?

That's an interesting question. I've certainly become more aware of my voice and myself. I've also learned to become more vulnerable. The more I fail in public, the easier it's become to fail.

What frustrates you the most about the literary community?  What has been the most helpful for you as you've navigated through it, both online and in person?

That's a big question. I think the literary community and its issues—institutionalized racism, misogyny, transphobia, and all its other horrid myriad of bigotries—are really just a microcosm of our terrible world. What's perhaps more frustrating about it in the literary world is that you might meet more people who are in denial of these realities than you might otherwise. So many people believe that art is somehow divorced from the world we live in, that it is always apolitical. 

But for a marginalized person, any means of expression is naturally political. For a marginalized person, expression is a direct counteraction to oppression, a strike against a system that ignores you and would rather you be silent. It's crucial to lift those voices up and to listen to them. Create a space for them to be heard. It shouldn't be that radical, but for some reason, it seems to be.

For me, navigating it has been an arduous, ugly thing. It's important to find a community that is open and welcoming to you, but it's also important to seek out those who make you uncomfortable and who challenge your ideas. I've had to step back sometimes (like when I stepped down from Queen Mob's), but I think it's always important for me to come back in, to get uncomfortable, and to get mad again. Because facing these problems is the only way to fix them. 

What do you think is the most helpful tool or advice to help lift those marginalized voices?

I'm not sure if there is a singular tool that I would say is most helpful for marginalized voices. I believe in any means necessary, I think. Social media, though, is certainly an excellent tool for the same reasons as I stated earlier: it's free and reaches a lot of folks. Just think about the power of #BlackLivesMatter—a truly transformative movement via a simple hashtag.

As far as advice, I suppose it depends on who I'm talking to. If you're an editor or publisher, actively seek marginalized voices. Do the work to support those voices. If you're a writer, keep writing, and keep pushing. Do the work. They want you to be quiet; don't be.

Really, if you're any human being, do the work. Go into your community. Go find the marginalized people. Talk to them. Work with them. Creating equity isn't just an artistic question; it's a moral question, and it's every person's responsibility to make themselves uncomfortable and to do the real, hard, ugly work of making a better world.

We want to give you the chance to leave us with some parting words of wisdom, thank-yous, shout-outs, or record corrections. What else is on your mind?

I don't know that I have a lot of words of wisdom or advice. Be humble, perhaps? Be vulnerable? Be raw and angry and upset sometimes. And be happy, too, of course, when you can. Be a good human being, and more than likely, you'll be a good artist. People who are assholes in the name of art more often than not are just assholes who are in denial about being assholes. Don't be an asshole.

Thank you very much to everyone at Awst (especially Wendy!) for doing all this for me. It's been a flattering and amazing experience. Also, a huge thanks to Tatiana for asking me to do this in the first place, and then working with me while I was dumb about the whole thing. And of course, my endless appreciation and love for Madeleine, for reading all of my early drafts and dealing with me every day, and for Maple, who is a very good dog and has nice floppy ears.

Also, thank you to the folks at The Offing (especially Feliks!) and the Rumpus (especially Lyz!) for all their support and their help in getting the word out. And of course, to everyone who bought a copy of the chapbook or who will ever buy a copy. Y'all are the best. Everyone is the best.

Jené Gutierrez is a writer living in Austin, Texas. She's the host of The BodPod, a podcast about bodies and how we live in them.