Manuel Iris is a Mexican poet, essayist and teacher living in the United States. He is Cincinnati’s former Poet Laureate (2019-2020), and he recently won the Ohioana Readers’ Choice Book Award for his book The Parting Present / Lo Que Se irá. (Dos madres Press, 2021)
His first bilingual poetry collection Traducir el silencio/Translating silence (ArtePoética Press, 2018) won Best Fiction Book Translation (Spanish to English) and Best Poetry Book – Bilingual at the International Latino Book Awards in Los Angeles, California.
He is the current Writer in Residence at the Cincinnati Public Library.
In our latest issue, we published the stunning poema inédito ‘Barco’ and republish Iris’s now famous poem ‘El idioma de la casa | The Language of the House’ (if you are reading just one thing today, make it these poems).
In this interview with Puentes Review, he talks about poetry, fatherhood and self-translation.
Puentes Review: In Lo que se irá you wrote to your daughter. What a wonderful gift for her to have her babyhood turned into poetry and what a wonderful gift to get to know you like this, at the beginning of your parenthood journey. Tenderness, fears and a fierce love are in these pages. How did this book change your writing? Will we get a second part?
Manuel Iris: At some point, after writing most of the poems in this book, I was afraid of publishing it. I was worried about other writers’ opinions and the opinion that literary critics could have about such a domestic, uneventful book.
It is a long ‘I love you’ to my daughter, and an exploration of life, fear, fatherhood, and poetry. I was ashamed of not being an obviously political or philosophical poet in that book. But, as a friend told me, ‘Your poetry is your politics’.
When the pandemic hit, I was —as all of us were—afraid of dying. This book became a message to my daughter, in case I died. That perspective made me keep the text as it was, and publish it.
Many people got radicalised by the pandemic. This book is the testimony that my love for my daughter and poetry was radical, and it continues to be so.
Yes, more poems explore fatherhood in a future book.
You’ve described poetry as an ‘act of love’ and as a ‘sister to music’. Have your views on poetry changed after the COVID-19 lockdowns…
Poetry didn’t change, but we did: we paid closer attention to it.
We, all humans everywhere, turned to art to help us make sense of that terrible reality in ways science couldn’t help us. Poetry became a way (in social media, for example) to keep and create community and to share our stories.
Poetry is an act of love, and just like love, it is also a human right.
You write is Spanish and English. How is your writing and editing process? Do these processes change between languages?
I write in Spanish first, and then I translate myself into English. However, often I like better what is happening in the translation, and I go back and change the original… which is not the original anymore, I guess.
I do not worry much about this problem as long as the result in both languages is an epiphany, actual poetry.
I do know, however, that poems do not come to me in English first. Except for when I wrote about gun violence. That one poem, that one subject, needed to come out in English because, in my mind and in my immediate reality, it is an exclusively American problem. Part of me holds that fear. That one single poem came to me in English. It has never happened again, and it never happened before.
‘Freedom is the only obligation for a poet’
Gonzalo Rojas, Ali Chumacero, Fernando Charry Lara and Juan Sanchez Pelaez were the four poets whose work you analysed for your PhD. Why these poets and what how did analysing their poetic work affected your own poetry and writing process?
I wrote my PhD dissertation about them because I wanted to justify the fact that I was obsessed with them as a poet. I wanted the time and resources to go to their cities, research their lives, and read them carefully.
They are very different, and very similar. They were all born during the 1920s and reacted to the avant-garde when they came to writing-age. Some of them liked the public life of the famous poets, and others were very reclusive, almost secret poets, away from the crowds. They were all deeply committed to their own writing style.
From them, I learnt how difficult is to be free and how freedom is the only literary obligation for a poet.
What’s the difference between sitting at your desk in Mexico to write poetry and sitting at your desk in the US to write poetry?
I do not know if I have an answer to this question. I know there must be a difference, but when I write, I ignore anything outside the screen or the black page.
What bilingual authors do you enjoy reading? Any books you recommend to other bilingual writers?
I enjoy reading translations and writers as translators. I enjoy, for example, reading the same book in two different languages. I would recommend reading as many translations of Walt Whitman as possible.
What advice would you give to Latin American/Latine emerging writers living en el extranjero?
Believe in your story.
Own your voice.
Do not let yourself or your voice be used by any narrative but yours.
Honor your heart.