Just Go with It: An Interview with Jose Hernandez Diaz
Poet Jose Hernandez Diaz’s first book of prose poetry, titled The Fire Eater, came out in February 2020. Born in Anaheim, CA, he holds degrees in English and creative writing from the University of California, Berkeley, and Antioch University Los Angeles. While at Antioch, he served as the poetry editor for Lunch Ticket.
Both his poetry and prose poetry have been published in more than sixty magazines, including The Best American Nonrequired Reading, Green Mountains Review, Huizache, The Journal, Los Angeles Review, Gigantic Sequins, Parcel, New American Writing, Pleiades, The Progressive, Rattle, Whiskey Island, and Witness. He’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and received a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2017. Diaz currently works with Palette Poetry and Frontier Poetry.
I talked to Jose over the phone about how he first got into writing in high school, the Mexican American imagery he puts in some of his poems, and advice he gives to writers starting out on their MFA journey.
Barbara Platts: What first got you interested in prose poetry?
Jose Hernandez Diaz: At Antioch, I was initially trying different experimental work. Then I actually took a semester off before I graduated, and that’s when I started reading James Tate’s prose poetry. Then, in my last semester, I started to write prose poetry. When I took that time off, I really just read. I didn’t really go out or have a social life. So, I was just reading, reading, reading, and I think that’s where my work saw the most improvement.
That’s the most important part of writing is reading, because you can want your work to grow and get published, but until you read what’s been published, it’s hard to take that next step. For me, it took the fact that James Tate had won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poetry titled Selected Poems. His writing style was subversive and comical; some would even say juvenile or sarcastic. The fact that this work was getting the Pulitzer Prize, it flipped my world upside down. I realized I could be funny, and I could be sarcastic in my writing, and it could be appreciated by critics. That was like the game changer for me with writing. At first, I didn’t want to read Tate because he was a white guy. I was trying not to read white males, honestly. But I was always into surrealism, and the cover of his book just spoke to me, so I started reading it. I had a similar experience with The Catcher in the Rye. When I first started reading literature in high school, and I read that, it was sort of written in an everyday manner. It was mundane, colloquial language. That has always spoken to me—when a writer has a nonchalant approach to their writing.
My first impressions of prose poetry, I was not impressed by it. It just looked like blocks of work; but once I started writing it, I felt like there was a freedom there, that you could just take it to the end of the page and create stories. I didn’t even know if that’s what I was doing, but I was always good at inventing absurd little stories. I think I got that from my father. He would always make up stuff to save face. I think I fed off of that. His economic situation was somewhat dire. So, for me, it was like my philosophy of absurdity came through his economic situation, making sense of it. Oh, life is meaningless, that’s why good people have to work in shitty conditions. I asked myself, why do I get to go to Berkeley? Why am I working in the library and my father has to struggle as an immigrant? I could’ve written about social realism, exclusively, but I saw it as rooted in a certain agenda. It was more like writing with an axe to grind, but if I wrote about absurdity it was my way of making sense of life. A lot of my prose poems, they probably come off as absurd or tongue in cheek or something.
BP: Speaking of your dad, you dedicated your book to your parents. Can you talk about how they’ve influenced your writing?
JHD: I’ve dealt with mental health issues since undergrad. So, my parents have helped me in a lot of ways and it just felt natural to dedicate my first book to them, because it wouldn’t have happened without them. I always said that my first book, I would dedicate to them, and my second, I would dedicate to my high school English teachers. They just meant everything to me. Growing up, I did have a sister that was an English teacher, and my younger sister is an English major, so I guess I was kind of destined to be an English major, but I didn’t know that in high school. I was a football player, and my high school English teacher noticed that I wrote really well in my in-class essays, and I was scoring high on the language arts test. She asked me why I had a D in her class. She inspired me to read and write. I still keep in contact with her to this day. I sent her a couple of copies of my book when it came out.
BP: Can you tell me about the process of working on your first book The Fire Eater?
JHD: I had a full-length manuscript almost ready. The editor from Texas Review asked me if I had something to send him. I was connected to him through a mutual friend. I went ahead and submitted the chapter of prose poetry I’d been working on instead of the full-length. I felt like the chapter or prose was more balanced. The themes throughout were similar and it didn’t bounce around as much as my full-length, so I sent my chapter of prose poems instead. He accepted it within a couple of hours and called me back all excited and went ahead with it.
BP: You’ve said before that you like to mix Mexican American imagery in your poems. Can you tell me a bit more about that?
JHD: Yeah, I think, like Tate, his surrealism is rooted in the American Midwest, and that’s what is great about it. It’s very subdued, pedestrian, mundane. Mine is also rooted in the casual, but also, I mix in certain details. Like, I have one poem where I’m lifting weights and there’s a jaguar on my washer—jaguar being a symbol of Southern Mexico. So, I like to mix in folklore; the ghost of Zapata will show up or things like that. So, it’s not just American, it’s also Mexican American or Mexican.
BP: Up until high school, had you written very much?
JHD: No. I mean, my sister was an English teacher. She’s older than me by like ten years. I was always proud of that. I didn’t know any Mexican English teachers or any Mexican teachers in general. I only had white teachers in elementary school and high school. I always thought it was bad ass that my sister was an English teacher, but I didn’t really write. I played football; I was a starter. It wasn’t until that teacher made me think of literature as cool and interesting that I started rejecting football. I finished playing, but after it was over, I was getting straight A’s and I started writing short stories after J.D. Salinger. They were kind of imitations of that, but also one of the stories I wrote was from the band Thursday’s lyric, “staring at the setting sun.” It was about my older brother’s mental collapse. He suffered mental illness also. I wrote about that, trying to make sense of that as a senior in high school, thinking that people with this hereditary trait suffer mental illness. In that story, I was coming to terms with the idea that I may also have a mental collapse. My teacher called me in class and was like, “This is college level, and you should be a writer.” So, that’s kind of what got me into writing.
I try to write both from my Mexican American heritage, but also, I want it to be universal. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I used to lament my heritage, but I think I’ve learned to accept it now. It’s the best of both worlds.
BP: Why do you write?
JHD: Well, for me, it’s everything. It’s my identity. It’s my way of life. If I didn’t have it, I don’t think I would be living. I would not have purpose in life. It’s everything to me: my philosophy, my religion. It’s not just a career. If I were penniless, I’d still do it. It’s also given me everything. I’ve been working on some projects I can’t really talk about right now, but it’s such an honor what I’m doing. I think about growing up, low income, basically poverty level. It’s so insane that writing has brought me all this stuff. Even the fellowship. No one in the neighborhoods I live in gets those. Writing is really everything to me.
BP: How did growing up in Los Angeles as a Mexican American affect what you write about?
JHD: Well, I grew up in northern Orange County, which is like fifteen, twenty minutes away. For the longest time, I was traumatized by that. And I think that kind of how the mental illness thing crept into our house was because we grew up over there, which is like all American suburbia, then we moved to Norwalk in southeast Los Angeles county, which is not far away, but it’s different. There were, like, five gangs in the neighborhood. I’m used to it all now, but when I first got here, it was kind of a culture shock, and I hated it. I felt like a loner and an outsider and like I was culturally isolated. But since then, I have grown, and I’m totally comfortable now.
I try to write both from my Mexican American heritage, but also, I want it to be universal. I don’t want to be pigeonholed. I used to lament my heritage, but I think I’ve learned to accept it now. It’s the best of both worlds. But my book is not really about race. It’s more about surrealism, existentialism, also manic depression. There’s a few moments where I talked about some aspects of race. That’s one of the things I worry about with my full-length. It’s a lot more rooted in identity and culture, not just Mexican American, but also the Southern California culture I grew up in.
BP: What advice would you give to students just starting out on their MFA journey?
JHD: Read widely, submit widely. Don’t be afraid to take risks in your work. Maybe read a writer that just won an award you want to win and latch onto them and try to write like them, and then try to make it your own. Don’t be afraid to read diverse authors and mix it up. You just never know what’s going to happen. I didn’t think I was going to write prose poetry; I didn’t even know what prose poetry was when I started at Antioch. I was mostly a political poet, so don’t be afraid to have your ear open to new possibilities and new roads. Just go with it.