Corral, winner of the Yale Younger Poets Prize, explores violence along the U.S.-Mexico border in Guillotine (Graywolf, Aug.).
Slow Lightning was published in 2012. What were the years like working on this manuscript?
For a long time, I had an intimate relationship with language. I spent days reworking the syntax of a stanza. I dwelled with an image for months. That intimacy disappeared after my first book came out. Now, my relationship with language is public. I give readings, blurb, tweet, teach. I tried for years to return to that intimacy, but eventually, I realized my relationship with language had evolved.
As I worked on Guillotine, I began applying more pressure to language. If I saw the yellow throat of a bird and my mind leapt to my abuela’s stained apron, instead of jotting down the leap, I questioned why my mind made that connection. Was the leap tied to a specific memory? If so, what other emotions and thoughts orbited that memory?
Can you talk a bit about the book’s dedication, “for the caretakers”?
In 2017, my father became very ill. He spent a week in intensive care, then a month in a nursing facility. I moved from Forest Hills, N.Y., to Arizona to help my mother take care of him. He was practically immobile for six months. As I bathed him, dressed him, and fed him, I became overwhelmed with gratitude for the people in southern Arizona who help Mexican and Central Americans survive the brutal desert. These caretakers provide water and food. These caretakers are compassionate. These caretakers tend to bodies that look like my father’s.
Words in Spanish appear throughout the collection. How does being bilingual inform your writing and your understanding of how language works?
Growing up in southern Arizona, I heard horrible things about Mexicans and immigrants in public spaces. I’d go home ashamed, but then I’d look at my parents and think, “Those things aren’t true.” When I realized I was queer, all the terrible things said about queer people that I internalized stayed with me. But I knew that language wasn’t true. So, when I heard a teacher say I shouldn’t use Spanish in my work, I dismissed his advice. What a foolish thing to say to a young poet. All kinds of dictions and syntaxes should be available to a poet. I refuse to privilege one language over another in my work. Also, displacement is one of the pleasures of reading. Displacement isn’t a site of anxiety for me—it’s an opportunity to enlarge my knowledge, to replenish wonder.