Explore O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press offerings on Amazon.
Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.

The O:JA&L Masters Series

Associate Editor Pamelyn Casto


Click on the title The Book of Whispers to explore more of his work in the new PDF chapbook available now as a free offering from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press.

Ray Gonzalez is the author of 16 books of poetry including the newly published Suggest Paradise (University of New Mexico Press). He received a 2018 Poetry Fellowship from the Library of Congress and has won three Minnesota Book Awards. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota where he recently retired.

Fate by Ray Gonzalez

Casto for O:JA&L: I’m pleased to get to interview you and I have many questions so I’ll just get right to them. As a professor in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota do you teach flash fiction, prose poetry, and/ or magical realism? If so, are there particular writers you explore? Specific textbooks you use? What do you see as the toughestconcept to get across to your students on writing short?

Ray Gonzalez: I just retired from the university this past May. I taught poetry, the prose poem, flash fiction, and other short forms, along with different literature classes. I used many books and writers over 26 years of teaching what I love and watched as the prose poem became more mainstream. More young poets are writing them because they see how the prose poem paragraph bristles with narrative, tone, and imagery, as it moves back and forth and down the page just like a line break poem but, they see the form sets poets free to compress an experience, fictionalize it at times or, simply become another finely tuned form that is magnetic and surprises you at how much one paragraph can contain. I believe linear poems do the same yet, by not worrying about where to indent the next line, the prose poet races along with a determined text—that vocal, imagistic, and self-revealing language that says it is all right here and now it is up to the reader.

Some of the writers I used in my classes ranged from Charles Simic, who passed away recently. His book of prose poetry, The World Doesn’t End, is important and shows what images can do in a prose poem. Also, the great French writer Max Jacob who was executed by the Nazis in World War II. Books by Rosemary Waldrep, Gary Young, Cesar Vallejo, Morton Marcus, and James Tate. Several Latin American writers who used the prose poem to go beyond the expected line break and stanza poetic experience were key–writers like Vicente Huidobro and Cesar Vallejo.

Casto for O:JA&L: Your courses sound fascinating, based on the writers whose work you feature. Why do you think short-short work has become so popular lately? Do you think it’s here to stay or is it likely to fade out of popularity (as it seems to have done in the 1950s)?

Gonzalez: It is here to stay because most people have short attention spans influenced by the internet. I don’t say that in a negative way. I have observed over the decades that people would rather take on a short paragraph than read a poem like T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” Too long.

On the other side, prose poetry and short forms are being written by many good writers because the evolution of poetic language dictates a prose freedom with words where images extend themselves. This means that the experience a poet and reader encounter in a stanza is formed by seeing it come alive in the sentences caught in a prose poem. It is a mystery, at times, because the careful writer senses there is something in those sentences and paragraph that will rise when a poem is functioning through several readings of prose rhythms. By writing, there is hope it will be a fresh picture of the experience. I am glad poetry is being created in this manner.

Casto for O:JA&L: I have a copy of No Boundaries, the fine anthology you edited. I appreciate it that you acquired ten prose poems from each of the twenty-four iconic writers included. Doing so helps give readers a taste of those prose poets’ concerns, styles, and methods. Now, twenty years later, who else would you add to an anthology of important prose poets?

Gonzalez: It is hard to say, Rosemary Waldrep and some of James Wright’s prose poems should have been included.

Casto for O:JA&L: Your own work in prose poetry stands out. Roy G. Guzmán said about your work: “He knows when to walk into a poem and when to walk away, leaving everything around haunted.” I agree with him; you do have that ability. In an interview I read at the Poetry Foundation site, I came across your wonderful description of prose poetry. You said, “Prose

poems allow the poet to condense the world into a tiny paragraph that contains huge worlds trying to get out.” What attracts you most to writing prose poetry? Why not let those worlds  trying to get out be made into a longer story or a novel? What makes compression such an important and memorable concept?

Gonzalez: The paragraph is a powerful poetic form that propels poetry beyond the wonderful and established expectations of line breaks and stanzas. The paragraph is manipulation at the hands of the poet. It works through the sentence, another form that is important. If line breaks and stanzas teach you about language, imagery, and text, the paragraph says the hidden mind of the poet uses narrative moments and declarative sentences to show linguistic revelation can lie behind a straight line without the constant need to break that line. This makes prose poems faster to write and read, and keeps the reader aware of every breathing moment in the words and collected sentences. Breath is not forgotten when you read a prose poem and writing one means you accept the borders of the paragraph when really those borders may exist visually but, there are no boundaries in a prose poem paragraph. I like the speed of the language even if it is a quiet text.

Casto for O:JA&L: I collect gods and goddesses from all cultures and find them fascinating. I was delighted to run across this quotation from you on myth from Poets & Writers magazine where you said, “Mythology is not dead, it is only weighed down by technology, the Internet, and the competitive literary world that often smirks at the idea of anything mythological that might impinge on the cool, postmodern approach to writing… It takes courage to say there are myths that still need to be told.”

By the way, I found this quotation stored in my flash fiction course information from 2010. I’ve been promoting your words for some time now. Do you still believe there are myths that need to be told? How do you use myth in your work? Do you make use of a particular culture’s mythology or are you also inspired by other cultures? Are you ever inspired by Greek myth?

Gonzalez: It is easy to say ancient Aztec myths of the Americas inspire me because I am Latino but, that notion has to come to life in the work of the poet regardless of culture and I believe poetry needs to stand as a universal experience regardless of its form. Language rises from what we see and believe as poets and many writers go beyond that to create their own truths and lies under the larger label of “myth.” Students have asked me over the years whether a poem needs to contain truthful facts and action at all times. I always said no because poetic truth through a prose poem, for example, is what the poet wants it to be and fictional moments enter prose poems all the time. It is a magical way of telling the truth as the poem explodes.

Casto for O:JA&L: I read in the Fall/Winter 2003 issue of Double Room that you are an admirer of Eduardo Galeano’s work. I have three of his collections and I can’t explore and praise his work enough. I think he’s outstanding for challenging a reader’s habitual thoughts.

About him you said:  “The great Uruguay writer Eduardo Galeano deserves a larger audience among writers of flash fictions and prose poetry. His work is magical and political, and weaves the mystery of prose poems with the mad fabulism of the best Latin American writers.”

Twenty years later does Galeano remain one of your favorites? Are there any particular pieces that fascinate you? What makes them stand out? Which pieces strike you as most magical? Can you give us an example of Latin American writers’ “mad fabulism”?

Gonzalez: Galeanos’ The Book of Embraces is like a bible to many writers. It is tough and beautiful and shows what Galeano does with the short form and that he was not afraid to write what he needed during life in Latin America and its dangerous history. Those pieces are a cry to the citizens of oppressive countries and are a guiding map for writers who want their poems to stand for justice.

Casto for O:JA&L: Which of your collections focus on magical realism? Do you agree with Luis Leal’s words about magical realism? He said, “The magical realist does not try to copy the surrounding reality or to wound it but to seize the mystery that breathes behind things.”

Gonzalez: I like the idea of surrealism more than magical realism. A poem has an immediate tone of magic realism when a close reading of the text brings it forward. My focus, over the years, on the landscape of the Southwestern U.S. shows my surreal obsessions with landscape and existence within the mountains, deserts, and wild canyons. Landscape that comes to life through a poem keeps the poet there with a strength unimaginable until you write a new prose poem. That is the magic and the realism is the poet inventing himself, over and over.

Casto for O:JA&L: I have a copy of Sudden Fiction Latino (that you edited with Robert Shapard and James Thomas) and I would recommend it to anyone who seeks good flash fiction. Which of your own collections include the most flash fiction pieces?

Gonzalez: The Religion of Hands (University of Arizona) is pure flash fiction, along with Circling the Tortilla Dragon (Creative Arts, out of print). My prose poem books are Human Crying Daisies (Red Hen Press, out of print) and Cool Auditor (BOA Editions). 

Casto for O:JA&L: Looks like I’m going to have to go on a book-buying spree soon. I’m eager to read your work that I’m not familiar with. Now that you’ve retired do you plan to write other collections? Create new anthologies? Do you have some new projects in the works already? Do you have plans for works you’ve not yet started? Can you give us a taste of what’s to come? More, please. Readers and writers need more of your work.

Gonzalez: My future writing projects include a new linear poem manuscript and a new prose poem manuscript but neither one is organized. 

Casto for O:JA&L: I’ve learned a lot from this interview and I’m sure our readers and aspiring writers will learn a lot too. Ray Gonzalez, I thank you for all the great information you’ve provided. I look forward to reading more of your work.


About the interviewer:
PAMELYN CASTO, twice a Pushcart Prize nominee, has published feature-length articles on flash fiction in Writer’s Digest (and in their other publications), Fiction Southeast, and Writing World (and elsewhere). Her essay on flash fiction and myth appears in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide To Writing Flash Fiction: Tips From Editors, Teachers, and Writers in the Field and her 8,000-word essay on flash fiction is included in Books And Beyond: The Greenwood Encyclopedia of New American Reading (4 volumes). She also has a 5,000-word article on flash fiction as the lead article in the new book Critical Insights: Flash Fiction.

Subscribe to her free online monthly FlashFictionFlash newsletter (first issue published in 2001) for markets, contests, and publishing news for flash literature writers. Casto is an Associate Editor at O:JA&L.

Pamelyn Casto’s new book Flash Fiction: Alive in the Flicker (A Portable Workshop), a new release from O:JA&L’s Buttonhook Press, is available now on Amazon.

Image: Fate by Ray Gonzalez (contemporary). Ink on paper. 9 x 12 inches. 2012. By permission.

OJAL Art Incorporated, publishing since 2017 as OPEN: Journal of Arts & Letters (O:JA&L) and its imprint Buttonhook Press, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation supporting writers and artists worldwide.

Become an O:JA&L Member through Patreon.