We talk to Esteban Rodriguez – whose poetry appeared in issue forty-five of Neon – about abandonment, theme parks and the uncanny nature of mannequins.
Your poetry in issue forty-five of Neon revolves around abandoned places and things: the theme park that’s oddly empty, the scarecrow alone in a field. Is this a constant theme in your work? What do you see in abandonment? Is somewhere that’s empty of people peaceful or a place of fear?
Abandonment is definitely a theme that figures prominently in my work, especially in poems where the imagery and narratives are more surreal. For poems that contain aspects of my personal life (specifically related to my upbringing in deep south Texas), I tend to place the speaker at the periphery of an event or occurrence, as a witness to something that can’t be easily accessed, despite repeated attempts. In a way I see this too as a kind of abandonment, but instead of being neglected by the landscape and people that occupy it, the speaker is forsaken by time and memory, which considerably dilute any endeavor to reconnect with that experience.
It might be cliché to say that abandonment is a double-edged sword, but that’s perhaps what I like about it; it can provide solace and at the same time provoke a sense of loss and fear, enough to make one examine who they are, or who they think they’ve always been.
Your poems all seem to belong in similar worlds. I particularly liked the presence of hollow, unreal bodies in each of them: the scarecrow, Zoltar and the piñata. What inspired these poems and images?
I’m particularly fascinated by mannequins and their uncanny nature. I remember going to the mall with my mother when I was younger and staring at the mannequins by the front windows (in retrospect, I gazed at them for an uncomfortable amount of time). For me, they embody a lot of what people are: lifeless, silent, always attempting to portray (at least through the garments they wear) some form of perfection to the world. For this reason, I’m attracted to objects (such as the scarecrow, Zoltar, and the piñata) that can be used to represent something larger than their intended purpose, however important or trivial that purpose may be.
I’d like to ask specifically about theme parks, as they’re something that interests me. They’re often a fascinating mix of artifice and reality. They can be places of fun, but just as often are portrayed as strange and menacing. Do you enjoy theme parks? Do you have any favourites or any which are particularly important to you?
I grew up in the Rio Grande Valley, the southernmost region in Texas. Every year, the Livestock Show and Rodeo would come down and stay for a week. I remember the rusted lights, the fragrance of cattle, the carnies shouting for the next contender. Even when the roller coaster operators looked bored out of their minds, the environment felt quite welcoming, and I had the freedom to navigate a space that was completely different from what I was used to. Although it wasn’t a theme park in the strictest of senses, it did and continues to serve as inspiration.
In your biography you mention your MFA. Do you feel that this course had a significant impact on your writing? Was it a productive time, and would you do it again given the chance?
It was definitely a very rewarding experience. I majored in Latin American Studies and Anthropology as an undergrad, and like most graduates fresh out of college, my future was unclear. I dabbled in writing somewhat and when I later found a program that I thought could hone what writing skills I possessed, I applied and was fortunately accepted.
It’s something I would do again, especially now knowing how the details of the program work. I’m well aware of the larger debate (at least here in the States) regarding MFA programs and the ways in which colleges and universities have attempted to commodify creative writing. It’s a debate worth having, but it shouldn’t deter potential students from wanting to be a part of a community of writers that are there for the same reasons they are.
Who are your favourite poets, or some poets or writers who you find particularly inspiring?
Although I try to read as much contemporary poetry as possible, I find myself returning to collections by Bob Hicok, Dean Young, Daniel Borzutzky, and Valzhyna Mort. In my mind, however, no other contemporary writer creates such poetic (and often nightmarish) landscapes as Cormac McCarthy. I could spend a lifetime rereading his novels and still discover something new and meaningful about the world I had never considered before, which is what good writing – regardless of genre – is supposed to make its readers feel.
Esteban Rodriguez holds an MFA from the University of Texas Pan-American. His poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in The Gettysburg Review, Notre Dame Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, New England Review, Puerto del Sol, and Zone 3. He lives in Austin, Texas.