"I have taught for more than seventeen years, and you know, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, they eat up the idea of discovering new ideas just by reading."
Lone Star Literary Life: Mr. Méndez, you are a writer, an educator, and an activist. Please tell us about the synergy in that combination and how each of your roles feeds and informs the others.
Lupe Méndez: There was a time that I completely compartmentalized my life—the poet Méndez, the activist Méndez, the teacher Méndez—but in the last five years I am finding that all of the ways I involve myself into building community are entirely informing all the other aspects of my life. What I do in my writer life and my activist life directly impacts what I am teaching and vice versa. I think the overall connection is the sense of community and search for truth that is present in all these interactions, especially in supporting and providing platforms for writers of color.
LSLL: You are an internationally published writer with work appearing in the Houston Free Press, the Kenyon Review, Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories from the United States and Latin America (WW Norton), Huizache, and the Texas Review, among many other outlets. Your first poetry collection, Why I Am Like Tequila, will be published this month. Please tell us about your book. How are you like tequila?
LM: Why I Am Like Tequila (Willow Books, May 2019) is a collection of poetry spanning a decade of writing and performance. This collection exists in four parts, each a layered perspective, a look through a Mexican/Mexican-American voice living on the Texas Gulf Coast. Set within spaces such as Galveston Island, Houston, the Rio Grande Valley, and Jalisco, Mexico, these poems peel away at all parts, like the maguey, drawing to craft spirits in order to talk about what we use of ourselves to make things work within ourselves and our lives. I think we are things that are crafted finely, like tequila, something that is not to be wasted, but to be cherished. We live and must live with patience and endurance. This book is about all that energy in crafting ourselves the way we want to be seen and heard.
Prayer of a Workhorse
By Lupe Méndez
Oh body, do not corner me,
do not grind me into paycheck,
give me a moment of you, body,
a morsel/laugh/eye contact
a moment past a season in the sun.
In the winter, let me rest, reposo,
give me some time to poet,
some time to scribble moon x 100
blue mark black out page stages.
I teach in a brick box. I am metal,
an insurance horse, don’t even have
my own dentist/space/shovel.
When I finally die/cry/dream
will have to find me a substitute.
They will be the only one
who thinks of me — in the fall.
Where did he put all those things?
And I will have to put myself together,
outside the urn, go back to work,
show them where I put those things,
then ask them if they need help.
I carry around a dead voice vase
full of wind. Wander without me,
body. Let me sleep, sleep, sleep
in for the next few days,
pen a particular pillar, mirror it,
wordsmith the shit wick out long
words, out of short words, a short
work week, maybe that is what is
needed. I cannot depend on you
to hear me. You ask too much already.
You so caught up in you, you only
listen to for the word "you". Funny,
I did write them with you in mind.
Glass: A Journal of Poetry (November 2017)
LSLL: You have almost two decades of experience as a performance poet, opening for writers such as Dagoberto Gilb and performing across the country, from Houston to San Francisco. Please tell us how you became drawn to performance poetry. What was your first performance?
LM: LOL. So back home in Galveston, I began playing in my middle school band under the direction of the great musical educator Ms. Izola Collins (QEPD). I learned to play trumpet in our marching/orchestra band. I even got first seat! After that, I got into theatre in high school and have loved the stage ever since. In high school, I began writing poems, and by college I was hitting the open-mic scene while working with Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say.
LSLL: You are a teacher; you host the Inkwell podcast; you’ve conducted writing workshops in Texas, as well as Miami and Chicago; and along with your wife, the writer Jasminne Méndez, founded Tintero Projects. How do you approach teaching literature and poetry, in particular? How does that approach change with different student groups?
LM: I teach my students that poetry and literature are like any other art form—there is craft involved. I teach them to think of books and poetry and performance and speak of it the way they do about music and movies, because they are all narratives, and that's how we connect to one another. I ask them to consider what of the narrative resonates with them; I ask them to think deeply about where they see themselves in the work they are reading; I ask them to look for what is both said and what is unsaid, that is, what is not pronounced? What isn't directly pointed to but is just below the surface? I have taught for more than seventeen years, and you know, from kindergarten through twelfth grade, they eat up the idea of discovering new ideas just by reading. Plus, I throw in the context of the life of the writer, and then their minds are blown.
LSLL: Speaking of literature and students, you are a member of Librotraficante, the organizers of which—including you—were awarded the Down Intellectual Freedom Award in 2012 for the defense of Mexican American Studies and literature in Arizona. How did you get involved with Tony Diaz and the Librotraficantes? How formative was that experience in your life and your own writing?
LM: I began working with Tony Diaz with Nuestra Palabra. Back in the day, I helped with mailing flyers, eventually learning the ropes of how to host events and help bring writers into the city. I was able to talk to writers about the "poetry biz" and learned a lot about what happens when the lights go down and the interviews are over. This is all from 1999 until now. But in 2012, when Arizona passed the now illegal HB2281, banning ethnic studies and its books, it was serious. We know most of the writers who were banned, and when it comes to the education of a child—a child who is hungry for knowledge—we couldn't ignore what was going on. We took all of our knowledge—how to plan book events, how to run a book festival, how to organize volunteers—and we created the caravan to take more than a thousand books to students in Arizona. I would say the Librotraficante Movement, which is still going strong, helped solidify my understanding that I can be a writer, a teacher, an activist—and all this is the definition of a poet.
LSLL: You and Librotraficante applied the Arizona experience to the struggle for Mexican American Studies (MAS) in Texas. Please tell us about the fight in Texas and where MAS stands now.
LM: Since our return from Arizona in 2012, we have been working with the vast coalition of writers, artists, teachers, and activists across Texas, and I can gladly say that because of a fully unified front, the Texas State Board of Education allows Ethnic Studies in the curriculum. The next step is figuring out the book lists, the courses offered, and who wants to teach them. We have the resources and we know the way.
LSLL: You are a CantoMundo Fellow, a Macondo Fellow, and an Emerging Poet Incubator Fellow. Your MFA was earned from the University of Texas at El Paso, the only bilingual MFA program in the United States. What does that program mean to you? Why do you think we only have one bilingual MFA program?
LM: I am proud of the work of my alma mater. UTEP is leading the way in both the residency and the online program, as both are fully bilingual programs. I think it speaks loud and clear about what having a faculty of color means; the professors of the program are from a variety of races and ethnicities and it adds to the richness of the program. It is necessary. The writing industry is still very white, which means that voices like mine seldom get heard. This is slowly changing for the better.
LSLL: You and Jasminne are new parents. The little one is about a year old now, I believe? How has marriage and parenthood affected and informed your writing? How do you and Jasminne support each other’s writing careers?
LM: We have always been hyper-involved in our own writing supports. We look to provide each other with the time and energy to do our own projects and support each other by reading each other’s work. And now, with a baby, there is no change. Yes, we are tired (Jasminne more than I); yes, we are as busy as ever, but that just means we get to take baby on the road for readings and open mics and immerse our kid in the world we love.
LSLL: Please tell us about what you’re working on now and what’s next for you.
LM: I am in full promotional gear for my first book, Why I Am Like Tequila. Maybe in a year I will get back to work on a book project about desegregation here in Houston and its effect on Mexican families.
LSLL: Which books are on your nightstand?
LM: Edward Vidaurre's I Took My Barrio On a Road Trip. He is legit total fire.
Originally from Galveston, Lupe Méndez is the son of an undocumented Mexicano and a southern Tejana. Lupe received his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Texas at El Paso. Méndez is a CantoMundo Fellow, a Macondo Fellow, and an Emerging Poet Incubator Fellow. Méndez has close to twenty years of experience as a performance poet, opening for such notable writers as Dagoberto Gilb, Esmeralda Santiago, and the late Raul Salinas. His newest collection of poetry, Why I Am Like Tequila, is forthcoming from Willow Books.
Lupe is an internationally published writer, including work in Latino Rebels, Houston Free Press, the Kenyon Review, Sudden Fiction Latino: Short-Short Stories From The United States and Latin America (WW Norton, 2010), Flash, The Bayou Review, Huizache, Luna Luna Magazine, Pilgrimage, the Texas Review, Bordersenses, HeART Journal Online, Glass Poetry Journal, Tinderbox Poetry Journal, Voluable, and Gulf Coast Journal, among others. He has served as guest editor for several literary journals, including Drunken Boat and Acentos Review, as well as serving as lead editor for They Say, the Houston-based Iconoclast Artist teen poetry anthology.
Méndez works with Nuestra Palabra: Latino Writers Having Their Say, Brazilian Arts Foundation, and other organizations to promote poetry events, advocate for literacy and literature, and organize creative writing workshops that are open to the public. He is the founder of Tintero Projects and co-hosts the Inkwell podcast, placing a spotlight on Latinx writers and other writers of color.
Méndez has been honored as one of Houston Press's Creative 100s, and along with the rest of the Librotraficante organizers, was awarded the Downs Intellectual Freedom Award 2012 for the defense of Mexican American Studies and literature across the Southwestern United States.