When Mike Soto and I talk, we rarely talk about poetry. Especially during basketball season. But I always learn a lesson or two from Mike when the conversation does turn toward verse.
Mike has pretty unshakeable aesthetic convictions, but he’s no proselytizer — or persecutor. Nor does he apply scrutiny for scrutiny’s sake. He wants to be able to show you that he’s seeing something in the writing for the first time. And he pays as much attention to what a poem is doing as he does to what it is saying. While I might be rhapsodizing about a poem’s sonorities, Mike is inspecting its ricketiest underpinnings.
As to Mike’s own poetry, it would be tempting to call it rooted or earthy. But I prefer to think of it as being both steadfast and fully inhabited. Mike appreciates that foundations are fabricated. Then again, if you’re going to combine neoclassicism’s equal temperament, the incisive excesses of the metaphysical poets, and Jamie Sabines-like political sensibilities — as Mike does brilliantly in A Grave Is Given Supper (Deep Vellum Publishing) — then you can’t get hung up on the negative connotations that often orbit the term “artifice.”
The following questions and answers were exchanged between July and August of 2020.
“The landscape in A Grave Is Given Supper recalls the tones of Frank Stanford, steeped with our phantasmagoric Texan borderlands. Soto offers up each poem like a votive candle, wreath of roses, or weapon, to lay on the altar of the outlaw Jesus Malverde, announcing the arrival of a new literary voice.” ― Fernando A. Flores, author of Pig Latin and Stuck on a Razor
1) What was the first poem — the seed poem, if you will — you wrote for this collection? When or how did you know it would be the first of the many poems making up A Grave Is Given Supper?
“Blank Chapel or, Consuelo’s Mistake” was the first seed poem, appropriately enough, as it also begins the book. In this poem, Consuelo, one of the book’s protagonists, unintentionally rushes into an unfinished chapel and has an immediate, visceral reaction to its walls which have been vandalized. I knew it would remain the first poem when the lines that explained how the walls got vandalized dropped fortuitously into the poem that starts the second section. Closing this narrative circle without a self-conscious effort on my part helped me trust that I should see the book to its completion.
2) Its relationship to Jodorowsky’s El Topo aside, A Grave Is Given Supper could be classified as a very cinematic book. Which is to say that its primary sensory orientation is visual. For example, here is just a partial list of images that recur throughout and regularly arrest the reader’s attention: mirrors, hats, coins, cards (a deck of conventional playing cards, Tarot cards, lotería cards), shadows, labyrinths, maize. Yet the visual mode is not exclusively cinematic. One could also read A Grave Is Given Supper as a kind of codex, one never not in the process of establishing its own pictorial vocabulary. Which is to say that, just as frequently, that pictorial vocabulary is subject to slippage and destabilization. How much is this a book to look at — or watch — as it is one to read?
I like the idea of a codex, and you’re right, there’s definitely a certain slippage and a duality to the images, as their meanings tend to shift depending on the perceiver. Mirrors, for example, are used to flash moonlight in one poem, to catch sunlight in another poem, and then swallowed in another poem. In each instance the mirror has a different intention and meaning, then goes through a process of transformation from a material object to an object of inwardness.
I guess my aim in writing the book this way was both cinematic and literary. But trying to write a cohesive narrative in poems, where each poem is singular, is very difficult in the sense that poetry rejects, and should reject, that type of narrative cohesiveness. I think the writers who have done it well seem to stretch the poems into prose a bit, and the poems tend to be dependent on one another for meaning. I found myself trying to do both — write a story and also make the poems stand out on their own — but I don’t think there is such a thing as success with this. My sense is that if an individual poem is good enough it will reject total cohesiveness with the poem next to it. My hope was that the book could be read both ways, but I think you have to give up the intensity of individual poems in order to tell a story. The result is that the book is not entirely cinematic, and is more of a codex, as you mention. Lucky for this book, I think this sense of destabilization is appropriate for its context.
3) Your family’s roots are in Michoacán. A Grave Is Given Supper takes place, by and large, along the U.S.-Mexico border. What is your personal relationship to the topography of the latter region?
My experience of the border is mostly transitional, as I’ve been crossing it on the road with my family since I was born and well into my adult life. The Laredo/Nuevo Laredo stretch of the border and the state of Tamaulipas is the area that I’m most familiar with, but I would say my relationship with the border is mostly impersonal, and yet very visceral: staying in questionable hotels, interminable wait times at customs, nerve-wracking interactions with border agents on both sides. My relationship with the border has also often been mediated in a car, which becomes an intensified space where the drama of getting through a point of entry unfolds. A mixture of fear and cautious hyper-awareness, dreading the regulated form of violation on the U.S. side, then dreading the unregulated form of violation in Mexico. So, my personal relationship with the border can be described as vapid, transitory, and episodic, but also tinged with trauma. As a child I remember being prompted by U.S. border agents to prove my family was good enough to be allowed to re-enter the country. What bullshit. I’d rather be asked for a bribe.
My lack of lived experience at the border is one of reasons why I chose to write A Grave Is Given Supper (AGIGS) as more of a fiction. But I also must say that family’s roots (Michoacán, Guanajuato) and my experience at the border are inseparable. Over the years I’ve witnessed how immigration affects people on the Mexican side of the border, an often-overlooked detail in the conversation. Year after year towns become ghost towns, as the cycles of immigration and cheap labor lure more and more people to leave for work in the U.S. Families might stabilize economically but at the cost of living in a deeply fractured dynamic. There is a constant sociocultural give and take that occurs, much of it unpredictable and alien to the lived experience of families, especially in the rural parts of Mexico. These cycles of leaving and returning, gaining and losing, are what charges the border with so much intensity, as much of my family history is written in the deal one makes in crossing it.
4) The interpretation of signs and the telling of fortunes (broadly speaking) play significant roles in A Grave Is Given Supper. How is this book simultaneously an allegory and an anti-allegory?
The book is about individuals following an intuitive path and trusting the signs they see in the physical world to follow that path further. But I don’t think of the book as allegorical, unless the allegory is about learning how to follow that path. On the flip side I would say AGIGS is an anti-allegory in the sense that it goes against conventions of the Western film genre. It’s not an East to West journey, it’s a South to North journey. It’s not a journey towards life, it’s a deathward journey. The shootouts that take place in the book don’t serve to make a hero of the fastest draw but serve to mark where Topito is in relation to this journey. I would say that AGIGS is a book that doesn’t find value in the allegorical, but it does find value in the anti-allegorical. It gains energy in going against, not with, conventions of knowing.
5) Why did you choose to make Malverde and not Santa Muerte (although she does make a few appearances here) so emblematic within these pages? In other words, how crucial was it to you that A Grave Is Given Supper center on the masculine rather than the feminine?
Malverde creeped into the poems early on and then gradually became a central figure because of what the folk-saint symbolizes. If Malverde is based on a scrap of truth, it centers on a man from an indigenous village who was compelled by poverty to steal from those whose greed made that poverty so possible. This was during the infamous Porfiriato, a historic time for greed in Mexico. He was executed for being an anti-government bandit, but in the process became venerated by the people with whom he shared this stolen wealth, people who were continually put in the same predicament: die impoverished or cross the boundaries of the law. It seems natural that in another historic time for greed, our present, Malverde would be appropriated by the people in the illegal drug trade. These are the same people, after all, whose only recourse out of poverty is very often a life of crime. The fact that tunnels became a vogue method for smuggling drugs across the border by the cartels, and that tunnel digging is the central metaphor for the journey of consciousness in El Topo, was a connection whose meaning Malverde helped me unify. That is why AGIGS centers on Malverde, not for any other conscious reason.
6) You’ve told me before that the description “Narco-Acid Western” was “useful” to you while you were writing the manuscript. How so? Now that you are the author of a published book that is being marketed with this same descriptor, what is your relationship to it?
That description gave me a framework for the narrative of the poems and allowed me to establish the book in a lineage of ideas. Simply thinking about those three words together was immediately generative. The term also justified the way I was already writing AGIGS, so it also confirmed an aesthetic. Closer to publication I grew a little more conflicted about the term “Narco” because of the way it’s used in American consumer culture. But now that it’s out, I feel fine with the descriptor because I’m not trying to glorify or romanticize a culture of greed and violence. If anything, using “Narco” in the description allows me to conjure that world and take it elsewhere.
7) What meaning does a showdown have if it is not climactic? If, tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, we will witness multiple other showdowns?
I think every showdown in the history of the Western, anti-Western, Spaghetti Western, Acid Western genre, can be seen a reflection of the gunslinger to themselves, and also a reflection of where we stand with the myth of American individualism. The Western might be the quintessential genre of American movie-making. The critic Kent Jones describes Westerns as a sort of state of the union address of what’s going on in America. The one-to-one nature of showdowns have this mirror aspect built in, obviously. But stripped of their conventionality, as in El Topo, the showdowns are catalyzing events in the process of rendering El Topo naked. In AGIGS I hope the showdowns do something along the same lines — marking where Topito is in the journey of consciousness, staging the end of a limiting self. I hope the showdowns in AGIGS functions as planes of transition. So, I think showdowns are never fully climactic, but they indicate, dramatize, facilitate, the end of a cycle.
8) A Grave Is Given Supper is piled high with what are, from an entirely provincial (i.e., American) perspective, obsolete vehicles: Datsuns, Mercury Topazes, Cutlass Supremes. But this is not an indication that, in reading A Grave Is Given Supper, we are visiting an alternate present in which U.S. auto industry is what it was in the 1980s and 1990s. These “zombie cars” are among the most “real” — factual, historical — things in the book. They are tangible evidence of exploitative/colonialist trade policies. In a book whose imagery can verge on the hallucinatory, however, the presence of these vehicles can create a disorienting effect that feels equivalent to “the surreal.” Is “the surreal” still a useful category of experience, literary or otherwise? If so, how so? If not, why not?
But I think Mexico is a place where an alternate present has and continues to exist. Used cars and zombie cars continue to be in greater use than new cars. This alternate present, of cars and so many other things, becomes truly bizarre at the border, and exploitative trade continues to be the name of the game, as far as I can see.
Cars also have a distinct place in Mexican culture, and I wanted to touch on that a little bit in AGIGS. A car is itself but also a vehicle, literally and metaphorically, enabling travel across existential planes. Cars are also passed down generationally and serve as symbols of power or a humbler life. In AGIGS, I also wanted to take charge of the inherent symbolism of car names, accidental or not. Mercury Topaz is a zombie car as well as a very basic vehicle, but the verbal juxtaposition of the words “Mercury” and “Topaz” is something I also appreciate, as mercury conjures an elusiveness while topaz conjures a solidification. I’m not saying the book should necessarily be read this way, but thinking about cars in this manner helped me shape a good number of poems.
On one level, surreal is a useful category because it allows us to efficiently describe an experience we can all relate to, but it’s much more more useful as a category of creative thought. To get caught up in the term “surreal” and its contemporary connotation is to dismiss a method and a lineage of thought that I think is still useful to anyone interested in breaking the conventions of syntax and meaning. I think there is a tendency in our contemporary context to hear the word “surreal” and think of something unusual but ultimately shallow. That’s definitely true when we talk about the surrealism of capitalism. But the surrealism that seeks out the subconscious is a different game altogether.
9) Which makes for a healthier metaphysics: religion or mythology?
I think both have a lot to offer if not taken literally. For me, critical/creative thinking and religion are not irreconcilable. There is a refusal in most of us to imagine they can be merged. I think we are both logical and spiritual beings, and as soon as you call a truce between these two sides, interesting things start to happen. But to answer your question more directly, in our current climate organized religion can certainly be seen as one of the more toxic forces shaping society, perhaps because it has been too rigid to call any kind of truce. Mythology can give us archetypes and symbols that are more open to critical thought and implementation into reality, without the dogmatic attachment to the way things should be, which organized religion can take quite literally. So, mythology seems like a much healthier realm at the moment.
10) What was the last poem you wrote for this collection? How did your journey toward this final poem change you?
It’s hard to pinpoint which was the last poem, but I know “A Few Visions, Topito’s List,” was in the last batch and representative of the more metaphysical poems that culminate the book. I put off working on those until most of the other poems in the manuscript solidified.
I feel like I’m still in the process of realizing how I’ve been changed and what I’ve learned, to be honest. Writing this book did confirm that seeing one’s vision to the end is worth it, and that’s a solid feeling to walk away with. For now, I can offer a line from El Topo that was with me until the end: “Too much perfection is a mistake.”
Mike Soto is a first-generation Mexican American, raised in East Dallas and in a small town in Michoacán. He is the author of the chapbooks Beyond the Shadow’s Ink and, most recently, Dallas Spleen. He received his MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, and was awarded the James Merrill Poetry Fellowship by the Vermont Studio Center in 2019. A Grave Is Given Supper is his debut collection of poetry.