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After the Orlando tragedy, putting the defiant act of survival into poetry

Poet Joe Jimenez said he first started hearing about the Orlando nightclub shooting when he and his partner were themselves sitting across from many of the gay nightclubs in San Antonio, Texas, in the early hours of that Sunday morning. “I saw some posts on Twitter and I thought it couldn’t possibly be true.”

He said he still had trouble believing it later that day when the news was confirmed. As a gay, Latino man who enjoys a comfortable middle class life, he says he feels very safe in his community. “But when something like this happens, you realize that no place is safe.”

Jimenez grew up in a small town in Texas, the son of Mexican immigrants. He began writing for fun when he was in junior high school “I would write about being a mutant, which of course seems like a precursor to what I write about now— being an outsider, being different.”

He attended Pomona College in California and returned to Texas to teach high school English. But he wanted to hone the craft of his poetry and enrolled in a low residency MFA program at Antioch University in Los Angeles. He says he was attracted to Antioch’s emphasis on community engagement and the pursuit of social justice.

“I resisted becoming a poet with a capital P. I wanted to become a poem ‘maker.’ I really do see it as making something for my community.”

Watch Jeffrey Brown’s report about the Antioch MFA program: Graduate students encourage poetry through community service

Just after completing that program, Jimenez says he exited a violent relationship and spent time on the Texas Gulf Coast trying to make sense of things.

“I love going out in the wild alone, being around plants and birds. It’s where I am most reflective. I don’t feel judged.” The poems he wrote during that time are filled with images of nature and became the basis his first published book, “The Possibilities of Mud.”

In the days following the Orlando shooting, Jimenez found himself again turning to poetry to try to process the events.

“The Orlando shooting saddens and enrages me. And I wonder to what extent I’ve been complicit in the violence by remaining silent? I haven’t spoken up when transgendered people have been murdered. Why am I now motivated to speak out because the victims of this tragedy happen to look like me?”

His poem “Smutgrass” — written in direct response to the Orlando tragedy— is a poem about being unwanted. But Jimenez says, it is also about hope.

“These are plants that aren’t wanted. People will do everything in their power to destroy them and yet they thrive. It’s true that the pleasure of survival is the most resistant act of all.”

Smutgrass

Growth is the hardest place for harm to lay its hair.
Of troublesome seed, we invasive bunches,
all narrow spike, fungus smut—the seedhead tells it all.
Despair, Self-Loathing running hands
through my beard.
& God out back having His heels washed
in water you & I use for drink—.
By our roots Old Words will echo: You don’t need
much moisture to seed now. Papi, cut us down only opens
the body to spread its beads.
Improvise, I tell myself. Let the shit go.
All of it means this: not everyone has a phoenix
inside. Some of us growing beside
roads, among beer cans & ditch weeds, waste & trees
smothered with hunger, sightlessness, maladies.
but What if there is nothing glamorous inside?
Can I make a good bed out of tallboys & plastic bags?
If nothing in the world calls your name, mouth wide, teeth gleaming,
If the back & arms you carry riddle with black
spots & marks made by birds who don’t want us here—
I will remind you: There are people who did this before us,
brown & black-spotted, yellow, with rattails,
born from what others did not want & loathed & aimed
to never let belong, & so, we are here today—
the field is wide. We make saliva from root & light.
Our spikelets grow, & do you feel the wind?


Joe Jiménez is the author of “The Possibilities of Mud” (Kórima 2014) and “Bloodline”, a young adult novel (Arte Público 2016). Jiménez is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles. The short film “El Abuelo”, based on Jiménez’s poem, has been screened in Belgium, the Netherlands, Mexico, France, Argentina, Ireland, England, and the US. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Workshops.

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