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A Borderland Poetry Masterclass with San Antonio's Poet Laureate Octavio Quintanilla


  • Jade Esteban Estrada
Editor's Note: Jade Esteban Estrada is the writer of Glitter Political, a series of articles detailing San Antonio's elections.

After a few minutes with San Antonio’s poet laureate, Octavio Quintanilla, I already feel like I’m deep into a creative writing masterclass.

As I sip my outsize espresso at Halcyon at the Blue Star Arts Complex, he agrees that there can be an artistic danger in censuring oneself during the writing process.

Even before his rise, Quintanilla, 45, viewed his poetry as a means of “confronting the world” around him. And, as someone “in the business of ideas,” he feels that this confrontation of notions, ideas and traditions gives him the opportunity to show “empathy for the world” through his work – which is laden with honesty. Being that honest can require a little boldness and artistic abandon when considering the current social climate where the oversensitivity of political correctness can easily lead to woeful, public misunderstandings. “If I’m not gonna be honest when I’m writing, what’s the point of writing?” he says as he adjusts his seafarer-style glasses. “I’d be lying to myself.”

Though he feels his poems are “not necessarily autobiographical,” he does feel his words have an element of “emotional autobiography.” And, as a Mexican-American with a story to tell, he seems to have a lot from which to pull.

Quintanilla was born in Harlingen. He lived, however, in Mexico for the first nine years of his life. When he turned nine, he returned to the Rio Grande Valley.

“Unfortunately, my parents stayed behind,” he recalls. “It was just me and my little brother that came over here to study, so there was that aspect of separation [and] dislocation.” When he says this, he reminds me – just for a moment – of “Separation,” a painting by local artist David Blancas.

In fact, that’s one of the many topics that he covers in his new Frontextos project, a series of visual poetry selections on his Facebook wall. He says he knows he’s “taking a risk in terms of subject matter.” The poems cover topics about the body, sexual relationships, race and political situations. “I don’t really go into writing censuring myself,” he says as he shows me number 278 in which he visually explores the symbolism of trees. “My life is an autobiographical template for work.”

Because our interview is in English, I keep reminding myself that his work these days is in Spanish.

“People have asked me, ‘Why do you write in Spanish?’ I think it’s been a way for me to return to that which I lost. [I’m trying] to capture or relearn or practice the language that I grew up talking but that, to a great extent, I forgot.”

Quintanilla proudly embraces the Spanish spoken at the borderlands, which may seem very similar to the Spanglish and Tex-Mex dialects.

Quintanilla, who’s a professor at Our Lady of the Lake University, discusses his writing process unaffectedly, and, over the span of a couple of hours, he elaborates on his daily, meditative approach.

“There are things I’m not ready to write about,” he says as Janet Jackson’s “What Have You Done for Me Lately” gently pulsates in the background. “I’m waiting for the right time to write about it.”

Is there a wrong time to write about something? I ask.

“Well, when you’re not clear about what it is you have to say,” he replies. “I’m not in the business of writing just to make a statement. I’ve always felt that what I do... I’m doing it with some type of... intentionality.”

He says that there are some experiences that he’s not ready to write about or reveal because he still “hasn’t found a way to heal” in regard to the subject.

Some writers would use writing as a way to heal. Do you think that’s wise? I ask.

“I think we can make the distinction between writing to heal and writing to publish,” he replies.

A week before, I met Quintanilla for the first time at the Letras en la Frontera Conference, a gathering of writers who write in Spanish. Writers from all over Latin America read their work to pockets of the local Spanish-language literary set. “We really don’t have many spaces for writers who writing in Spanish,” he says matter-of-factly. When I tell him I attended the conference as a personal, guilty pleasure, he says, “We’re kind of lucky. We can move between two worlds... English and Spanish. I’m a huge advocate for writing and speaking in Spanish.

“I mean, think about it. Right now, there’s this hate rhetoric against people who speak Spanish,” he says thoughtfully. “There’s a lot of fucking hate about that. I mean, you saw the poetry that I’ve been writing lately. It’s all in Spanish. It’s a way to resist. I think spaces like [the conference] are resisting that rhetoric of hate.”

How long does it take you to come up with a title? I ask.

“Aww… fuck, man,” he replies with exasperation. “It takes me a long time, dude.”

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