Tino Villanueva is a Chicano writer who according to celebrated poet Martin Espada invented (along with Gary Soto), a new genre of poetry. Espada opines that Villanueva conceived: “…serious literature about farm workers. That in itself guarantees Tino a place in literary history.” Villanueva, who earned a PhD in Spanish Literature, and is a professor at Boston University, does not however live in a literary ghetto of Latino literature. Reginald Gibbons, former editor of Tri- Quarterly magazine wrote that Villanueva has: “… found a way, to write of both worlds (Chicano and Anglo) that makes sense, I believe to all readers, even those who might be interested in one of those worlds or the other.”
Villanueva has received a 1994 American Book Award for “Scene for the Movie Giant,” and has penned a number of books, including: “Primera Causa/ First Cause,’ “Shaking off the Dark,” and others. He also edited the literary magazine: “Imagine: International Chicano Poetry Journal.”
I talked with Villanueva on my Somerville Cable Access TV show: “Poet to Poet/Writer to Writer.”
Doug Holder: What is your experience with political poetry? Do you feel it gets mired in dogma?
Tino Villanueva: It’s not an easy genre to write in. I’m very wary about it. And I often think what Pablo Neruda said about political poetry. His warning to a young poet was not to begin writing political poetry until he mastered what poetry “is.”
When you start out you think what you write is poetry but it is sloganeering or just propaganda. What Neruda says is politics as well as love, and I would add religion, are three major things that if you want to write about them, you have to “pass through.” You have to have experience in technique and know what poetry is. You may think you are writing a love poem, but it is just gushy, saccarhine and sentimental.
DH: Were you an “angry young poet?”
TV: I was born in Texas in 1941. I went into the Service. I served in Panama. When I was a freshman in college I was 24 years old. I graduated in three years. I went to college on the G.I. Bill. When I started writing poetry I felt true love for the poetry of Dylan Thomas. If he was writing about birth and death then that was what I was writing about. He became my mentor. I wanted to sound like him…he had a great voice. He was a marvelous reader.
Later I became part of the Chicano Movement on campus. We had a Latino Civil Rights Movement from 1965 to 1975. So my poems from this period may show anger. Those types of poems are in my first book that came out in 1972. They were mostly written as an undergraduate and in graduate school.
DH: Are you embarrassed by these early poems?
TV: There are one or two poems that are salvageable. Some poems I don’t bother reading. With many of the poems I tried to sound like Dylan Thomas. It was important work in that I learned discipline and how to say what I wanted to say. It took me 12 years to write the next book.
DH: In an article in the Texas Observer it states that your poetry has echoes of French Existentialism, where you insist on the possibilities of creating oneself through choice and will. What have you created?
TV: I don’t know what the critic meant there. There are some poems in my last three books that show a transformation of a young man struggling out of a disadvantaged background and making something out of himself. He first wanted to be a baseball player because he thought he had a good curve ball. But the scouts never came. He had no idea back then that he would become a poet. But he would save himself that way.
So in my last two books there are several poems that make reference to this transformation. It is making something out of yourself through sheer will.
So in my last two books there are several poems that make reference to this transformation. Making something out of yourself through sheer will.
DH: In a poem of yours you wrote: “I write. I stop writing. I write.” Is this your definition of the writing life?
TV: When you are hitting it right, yes. When the muse is with you, when the inspiration is with you—those are the moments you have to take advantage of. You hit some dry spots, but you have to get out of it.
DH: What do you do to get out of writer’s block?
TV: Well language produces language. I turn on the radio, even if it is a soap opera. I’ll pick up a newspaper. I might hear something that snaps me out of it—a particular turn of phrase. Sometimes I will pick up a book by Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, and read work that inspires me.
DH: You are a very accomplished and learned man. Yet you still take courses at the Boston Center for Adult Education, and attend groups like the “Bagel Bards,” a group of poets that meet at the local Au Bon Pain.
TV: I am always learning something. Intelligent talk always helps me write or snap out of a block.
DH: Do you write in cafes?
TV: I am not a café sitter. When I am in Barcelona or Madrid, but not Boston.
DH: Is writing natural or “organic” for you?
TV: I’ll quote from James Dickey: “We all have ideas about what we want to write about. It takes 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration.” We’ll, you have ideas I am sure—you have to figure out how to express them—you have to figure out how you are going to transfer it on the page. What kind of images you are going to present? I am full of ideas but I have to find the words. I have to work to find the words. It is not easy.
DH: How was it being a Latino-American in the Academy?
TV: Well I had no role models. I was treated well in Buffalo and Boston. I felt welcomed. At Wellesley College I taught the first Chicano Lit. course in 1978.