Octavio Quintanilla is the author of the poetry collection, If I Go Missing (Slough Press, 2014) and the 2018–20 poet laureate of San Antonio. His poetry, fiction, translations, and photography have appeared, or are forthcoming, in journals such as Salamander, RHINO, Alaska Quarterly Review, Pilgrimage, Green Mountains Review, Southwestern American Literature, The Texas Observer, Existere: A Journal of Art & Literature, and elsewhere. Reviews of his work can be found at CutBank Literary Journal, Concho River Review, San Antonio Express-News, American Microreviews & Interviews, Southwestern American Literature, Pleiades, and others. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Texas and is the regional editor for Texas Books in Review. He teaches literature and creative writing in the M.A./M.F.A. program at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio, Texas.
This week, Lone Star Literary Life wraps up our National Poetry Month coverage with a profile of San Antonio poet and professor Octavio Quintanilla. He will serve as San Antonio’s fourth poet laureate, for a two-year term from 2018 to 2020.
The first male to hold the position, Quintanilla is tasked with generating public interest in and preserving the art of poetry, while celebrating the culture and history of San Antonio. He talks with us about his new assignment, poetry, and the Alamo City.
LONE STAR LIT: Where did you grow up, Octavio, and what were your formative years like?
Quintanilla: I was born in Harlingen, Texas, but lived in Mexico till I was nine years old. I grew up in two countries and with two languages. When I came to the U.S. to live with my grandmother, everything I was stayed behind in Mexico, even my parents. So, there was that element of emotional rupture, which in many ways could describe my formative years living in the Rio Grande Valley.
How you were raised, and how do you think your writing was influenced by where you grew up?
Growing up in Mexico and in the Rio Grande Valley definitely influenced my writing, specially the work in my debut collection, If I Go Missing Many of the poems have the people and the landscape of these places as their core. As far as how I was raised, my parents, and my grandmother, were pretty open-minded and caring. So, I always felt supported and loved. Overall, I was shy as kid. Maybe this is why I loved to read. I read tons of revistas, Mexican graphic novels. When I would visit my parents in Mexico during the school breaks, my mother would have stacks of them for me to read. Reading so much as a kid helped me develop a sense of narrative, helped me with my sense of structure in writing prose and writing poetry.
Have you always written? How did you come to poetry?
I think I have always written. Started with stories in fourth and fifth grade. Then in middle school and high school I started liking poetry and started writing it. I don’t remember what exactly got me into writing poetry. But I read a lot and I just liked words. Liked how they looked on the page. The combinations. How I could take a few words and create a variation of meanings with them. Evoke different things with the same words. Create different images. How I could check out a book from the library, carry it around, not even read it, and still feel the power I had just by the act of carrying a book. A thing full of words. I think that’s how it started. My friends, too, encouraged me to write by asking me to write letters for their crushes. And my teachers. They saw it in me. This sort of encouragement kept pushing me towards the written word. They probably don’t remember me, but [here’s a] shout out to Mr. Warren, Mrs. Warren, Mrs. Barnes, and Mrs. Subram at Weslaco High School.
What was your first big break as a poet?
Becoming the 2018–20 Poet Laureate of San Antonio! Actually, I think my first big break was getting my first poem published back like in 2003 in a journal called Slant. It just felt amazing to know that someone I didn’t know, someone who was probably of a different race, class, and gender read my poem and thought it was good enough to publish.
Tell us about your collection of poems.
If I Go Missing was published in 2014 by Slough Press. I wrote many of the poems while working on a PhD at the University of North Texas. Overall, it took me about seven years to write. The poems vary in terms of theme and structure, but collectively they evoke a strong sense of place—the Mexico/Texas borderlands.
You’ve written and published poetry for more than a decade. What is your creative process like?
My creative process begins with my senses. I am working on being more creatively engaged with the world around me. I usually carry a note book with me to write down notes, images, phrases, etc. If I don’t have my notebook, I use my phone. I text myself, take pictures. That’s how I jump-start my creative process. Poems eventually emerge. Since the beginning of the year, I have challenged myself to write something every day, often a visual poem. I write these poems in Spanish and I call them “Borradores,” drafts. I post them on my social media, Facebook, and Instagram, and some of these have been published or are forthcoming in literary journals. When the poems are published in journals, I translate them, sometimes working with mistranslation and misdirection. I am really enjoying this element of play in my poems.
What brought you to San Antonio?
Work brought me to San Antonio. More specifically, a teaching gig at Our Lady of the Lake University. I teach literature and creative writing to undergrads and I also teach in the MA/MFA program, which focuses on literature, creative writing, and social justice. I have been here since 2014. Wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.
I am going to pose the question I ask everyone who teaches. Can writing be taught?
Yes. I think it can be taught. Sometimes I teach Comp classes so I know I can teach different ways to write an essay. As far as creative writing, I think it can also be taught. But reading a lot, and not just any old kind of reading, but reading like a writer, is what will make a difference in the learning process.
What do you think pulls some people to poetry and some to prose?
Not sure, but before I got completely invested in poetry, I used to read a lot of fiction, and I wrote a lot of fiction. I even have a novel somewhere under the mattress. But at the end of the day, I kept returning to poetry. And I still write prose. As a matter of fact, I am working on a memoir right now. Why some people turn to poetry and others to prose might have to do with the possibilities we find in language when we write one or the other. As for me, at day’s end, I find myself in a poem.
What Texas poets do you most enjoy reading?
[There are] too many individuals to name, but definitely all of the poets I know from San Antonio, Houston, El Paso, Denton, Dallas, Corpus Christi, Kingsville, and the RGV. I am sure they know who they are.
Finally, will you share one of your Texas poems with us?
Carcass, South Texas Dirt Road
You still remember how it looked
after the drizzle licked it clean.
What the hell was it?
Blades of grass
taking the place of teeth;
the wind’s snout
sniffing sockets for a light
You must’ve been nine years old,
old enough to know that dust is raised
to fall on dust again.
Old enough to keep secrets.
Years turned horror into poetry.
Maybe you want to go back.
To the wood-framed house sitting
on concrete blocks.
To the mutt you saved from drowning
in a canal. To the girl
who had no faith in you.
Maybe you don’t want to remember her.
Or that your father had no legal papers.
All day digging trenches
for plumbers, always walking
on the dusty colonia road
that darkened when wet
like a monument for old bones.
From Octavio Quintanilla, If I Go Missing (_________)
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