INTERVIEW: Tim Z. Hernandez and Samantha Samakande
Tim Z. Hernandez Interviewed by Samantha Samakande
There are stories that hurt. There are stories that tangle in your gut and leave you aching in the best way—Some of the Light: New and Selected Poems by Tim Z. Hernandez (Beacon Press, 2023) is one of them. Hernandez’s poetry collection is an appeal to the power of witness. A single father, he invites us into the rituals of belonging between him and his children. With the same urgency, he compels us to gaze boldly into the face of systems of injustice and the many brutalities they facilitate, and then to turn that gaze inward. “We must remember this,” he insists again and again, of the US immigration policy of family separation and its imprisonment of migrant children in cages, police brutality, and the California wildfires, among others. One of the collection’s greatest strengths is its attention to the interrelatedness of the personal and the political—of our private thought lives, our creative lives, our family lives—and then the broader, collective spheres in which we all participate and exist together. His poems galvanize the reader’s intellectual, emotional, spiritual, political, and creative imaginaries all at once.
Samantha Samakande: Congratulations on Some of the Light, a stunning collection, and arriving at this juncture where you are releasing it into the world. Being an African immigrant, I resonated deeply with the nuance and vulnerability with which you attend to the tensions of a life lived on the borderlands of different nations, histories, and communities, along with the tensions of negotiating belonging as a person of color in the US. My first question for you is, as a writer who works in multiple forms—straddling the worlds of fiction, nonfiction, poetry—what made you decide that these stories needed to be told in this medium? Who are you trying to reach and why was poetry the right vessel to reach them?
Tim Z. Hernandez: I always try and approach writing and art-making as organically as possible, and allow the subject to determine the form or genre, rather than imposing my own box around it. Many times, what starts out as a poem will morph into a story, or sometimes into a song, or a painting. And I follow it down its own path until it begins to reveal to me what it wants to be. This process is liberating, and I try to stay true to that. So to answer your question, it wasn't that I chose poetry as the form, so much as, I just wrote the pieces as they came to me. As for my target audience, in the case of Some of the Light, I was really writing the poems for myself. I was asking myself these questions about fatherhood and complicity, and attempting to answer them as honestly as I could. I was, in essence, polishing the mirror. For me poetry has always been a cathartic practice, and one I've used to delve deeper into my flaws and ideas and habits, so that I can grow as a person, hopefully. At least that's always the idea.
SS: What a joy that the landscape of meaning-making for you is so expansive and fluid, as you are able to weave in and out of these different art-making and storytelling media, from music and painting, to story and poetry. Would it be fair to say, then, that at the heart of your process—of chasing after the piece, being open to wherever it leads, and allowing the poem to reveal itself to you—there is this sense of leaning into discovery?
TZH: Yes. Discovery is absolutely the purpose. For me writing is all about the process of discovery. The discovery of what's behind my own biases, ideas, habits, fears, boundaries, etc. In this way it acts as a kind of meditation. And if I'm discovering along the way then maybe the reader of my work will discover things about themselves, too. Most of what I write is driven by questions rather than answers.
SS: I would like to linger on something you said before. You mentioned that poetry is a cathartic process for you, along with being a place of self-interrogation and of "polishing the mirror." Throughout the first section of the book, you have these interesting meta moments where the poem itself becomes a character under your microscope. In particular, you assert what the poem is not and what it cannot do or cannot give, which culminates in the “Unqualified Poem,” which feels like a sort of indictment of poetry as a vehicle.
Can you speak a little bit to that tension—where as writers, we see the griefs, the injustices, and the tragedies of the world and how we retreat into the poem as both a refuge and as a means to explore this trauma, while also being painfully aware of its limitations? What do you see as the function of the poem in a world where, as you say, “There are now 800, 1,800 children, cold / and huddled inside Tornillo, just forty miles away / from this poem?”
TZH: The poem is both. It's simultaneously a retreat or place of refuge, as much as it is a way to explore a situation, and to discover my place within that situation. The poem is also a necessary remedy for dealing with the taxing realities of everyday life, and it's also a messenger because it has the ability to travel (ideally) further than its author. But let's not mistake that for praxis. A poem should never be confused or substituted for direct action. Because nothing beats physical presence when it comes to manifesting transformation in our lives, and in our communities. If a poem is love, then we must move it beyond theory and walk it out into the streets. "I love yous" are about as good as "thoughts and prayers." Sure, they can inspire us to take action, but we can't mistake the words for the act of love itself. And in the same way, all the injustices that are the heart of many poems, including my own, will not be corrected or transformed by words alone, no matter how dazzling they are, or how many awards they garner. And that's what "Unqualified Poem" is about. I was asking myself, how much of myself am I willing to commit to this particular cause? Beyond the page, I mean. Especially when the dehumanization that is the focus of that poem (detained migrant children) was happening just forty minutes away from the comfortable home I was sitting in at that moment comfortably composing a poem. I knew that if I was genuinely invested in the subject of that poem, then after composing it, I would need to put my pencil down and get in my car and drive there to stand at the gates of the Tornillo detention facility and bear witness, and use my voice however I could to shut it down. This is what that poem is about—life first, poetry second. Or: poetry, life, poetry.
SS: I’m struck by your meditations on the push and pull between the seemingly boundless possibilities of poetry and its profound limitations, that notion that the poem as love means that it must stretch beyond the page and that our physical bodies must move, reach, touch, and act on the lived realities of systems of dehumanization on behalf of the poem, or rather, in ways the poem will never be able to do. What has it looked like for you, balancing the quiet, personal, and internalized work of writing with the more external, communal work of organizing or activism?
TZH: Well, as I said, the living comes first. The writing is simply the document of the experience. With that in mind, I haven't done much organizing in the physical sense lately. But that's because I've been in the writing. It varies, some months are for living, other months are for writing. Or sometimes it's week to week, or day to day. But always, the living comes first. As a single parent, this means I am in service of my children above all else. I try and balance that with being kind and loving to myself as well. Which isn't always easy. I try not to think too hard about the writing, at least not while I'm running my day-to-day errands. Being present as much as possible is the goal for me. While I'm living, I'm living, and while I'm writing, I'm writing. Not to suggest they are two different things, but the writing is more like a parenthesis to living, it's very much a part of it, but it's a pause in between tasks and movements, if this makes sense. So the balance is addressed with mindfulness and presence. For me, meditation is an important aspect of my life. As cliché as this may sound, it's the only practice I've discovered to help so far.
SS: One of the anchoring themes of the book that you thread throughout is this idea that “we must remember,” that “we cannot forget,” that we must bear witness. So we see this excavation of your own personal memories of life with your children alongside an excavation of our collective memories of injustices happening around us as a society—the US policy of family separation and its imprisonment of migrant children in cages, police brutality, the California wildfires, and so on. How did you mean for these different kinds of remembering to be in conversation?
THZ: That's the thing. I don't see them as different at all. The poetry is intentionally introspective, because I am trying to explore the relationship between how my actions in the most intimate sense are reflective, or even tethered to, the larger picture of injustice and violence in this world. In other words, where within me do the prejudices and anger and wounds still exist? Where am I still acting out in certain ways that are hurtful to others, starting with the people I love most, my children? Because if I cannot change this, how can I truly expect anyone else to? This applies in the opposite direction, too.
How am I able to take the love I have for myself and my family, and give that same intention, tenderness, forgiveness, to my community, and by extension, to the world? I realize there is a lot of pain right now in the world, and particularly in this country, and each writer/artist gets to decide for themselves what role they play on the team. For me, the goal is to remind us that love is, above all else, the point. And I must never lose sight of this; I must always remember this. The refrain of "remembering" is a reminder to myself, but at the same time, an invitation to the reader. Let us both never forget that love is the only point, the only pursuit.
SS: There is something here about how the impulse to pay attention, to observe, to collect, and to share, that we cultivate so obsessively as artists, is core to our ability to enact love. That picture of radical self-interrogation and reflection you model in your book is so powerful, as is your invitation to the reader to courageously “remember” together. Showing the reader just how richly this can be lived, even in as immediate (and seemingly mundane) a tether as family, is a beautiful point of hope.
Earlier, you mentioned that the poem is “also a messenger because it has the ability to travel (ideally) further than its author.” Your thoughts about the poem’s ability to transcend its maker got me thinking about the role of place in your collection—place not just as a physical location but as encompassing emotional, spiritual, and even sociocultural location. With this broader sense of place, are there ways in which you have begun to see your poems reach outside your personal scope?
THZ: I don't think I can measure the reach of my poems in terms of the broader scope. I don't know if I'm ever supposed to. My only hope is that after writing each poem, I have paid close enough attention to the process that it has changed me in one way or another. And if I'm lucky, that the words can act as a kind of loose map for my own children. As they grow older and make their way in the world, my hope is that my writing in general can offer them a place of rest, solitude, reflection, and rejuvenation. That they will not feel so alone in the challenges of daily life.
SS: I hadn’t thought of it in this way, that as the writer, you are the only compass you have of how you hope your poems will move in the world. I love that in allowing the reader to watch you wrestle, as well as be challenged and transformed by the process of writing your poems, they may also find a safe place to do that work in themself.
Along similar lines, while your poems are rooted in place in a traditional way, do you set out to use juxtaposition or a counterintuitive sense to explore tension? I am stuck on poems like "Home," which seems to turn the concept of home on its head by exploring dislocation and what feels like a conflict between survival and trying to craft a place of belonging.
THZ: I think that's just how I write these days. As the poem says, "Everything happens in singles these days / line by line." This is how I find myself thinking lately—slightly fragmented and reliant on the inherent magic of juxtapositions, in language and in life.