I FIRST INTERVIEWED Luis Alberto Urrea 10 years ago for The Elegant Variation upon the publication of his magnificent novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter. He had already made his mark on the literary world with books of fiction and poetry, not to mention his acclaimed The Devil’s Highway, which was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction. His writing deeply influenced my own, and I was lucky enough to cajole him into submitting a flash fiction piece that appeared three years later in my 2008 anthology, Latinos in Lotusland.
Urrea continues to publish wonderful books including Into the Beautiful North, Queen of America, and The Water Museum, among other titles. And the awards continue to be bestowed: Urrea has won the Lannan Literary Award, the Pacific Rim Kiriyama Prize, an American Book Award, the Christopher Award, and an Edgar Award, among other honors.
Urrea was born in Tijuana to a Mexican father and an American mother, currently lives outside of Chicago, and is a distinguished professor of creative writing at the University of Illinois-Chicago. His latest poetry collection, The Tijuana Book of the Dead, has just been published by Soft Skull Press, an imprint of Counterpoint.
Urrea is a proud Chicano, one who uses the written word to bring our culture — and his personal voyage — to the world without obfuscation or sham emotion. And The Tijuana Book of the Dead is a fitting addition to his oeuvre. It is muscular, gritty, cinematic, and often hilarious. This collection undermines the complaint — that sadly I hear from too many non-writers — that poetry is “difficult” and better suited for ivory tower intellectuals. Simply put, Urrea brings us poetry for the people.
DANIEL OLIVAS: How did you settle upon the title of this collection?
LUIS ALBERTO URREA: I was thinking about The Tibetan Book of the Dead. And of course the Popol Vuh, which is in many ways a spirit guide as well. So yes — there are esoteric foundations beneath the book. However, it is also a book, quite literally, of the dead. And, for so many, Tijuana (the border) is a passage from one life to another. Or a place to die — like my father. Or a place to be born — like me. All those things — as well as just being a badass title. We come to pay respects and to transition …
Yes, the reader very much gets the sense that these poems came into being during a life’s journey or journeys.
These poems were, indeed, written over many years. There are at least three books that I unwrapped and rewired. But much of the book is new — well, when you’re as old as I am, 10-year-old poems seem “new.” When the Tucson book bannings — or should I say, Mexican bannings — happened, I guess I blew my cork. Relevant pieces coalesced almost under their own power. It was gravitational — weight attracted weight.
Now, all writers are eccentric in their own ways, so if I were put in a docket under oath, I might have trouble making a clear case why poem “A” fits with poem “B.” Maybe I’m just feeling like the Elephant Man, shouting, “I am not an animal!”
One of my favorite poems is the last, “Hymn to Vatos.” It has a call-and-response feel, as if it is meant to be performed with assistance from an audience.
“Hymn to Vatos” is a special poem for me. I don’t mean it’s a good poem — that’s not for me to say. But I realized it (as opposed to “wrote it”) at a nephew’s funeral. He was a vato firme, and had been burned by other vatos with a can of gasoline. And at the funeral, there were other vatos with T-shirts with his name on them and gats in their belts. You know the scene.
But inside, it started to hit me. I thought: who will ever write a poem about my nephew, or his friends? And I saw my big brother, who has since died, mourning. And older men — those great bent viejitos we love in their 1958 brown suits. Good men, working men. And the preacher, who was Mexican. And the upstanding Chicanos come from work or their college studies to pay their respects. And the angry gay brother who had felt rejected by our family. What of them? Who will write a hymn for them? Our men? I had to do it. (May the sisters forgive me — I did The Hummingbird’s Daughter to try to give back a few hundred pages for them.)
So, yeah — the book had to end with that poem. And if you note the overall flow of the book, the first line of the first poem and the last line of “Vatos” form one sentence. One statement. All the rest is the middle of that sentence. Hence, the book — even with its f-bombs and naughty bits — is meant as a prayer.